So You Want To Be A Sled Dog Handler

The famous Iditarod, a 1,000 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, is well underway. The stress and frenzy of pre-race requirements – packing drop bags, filled with a musher’s essential supplies, and getting them to the designated distribution center, vet checks, final training runs and meetings galore – vaporized the second each musher pulled their hook at the starting line and their dogs and sled surged forward down the trail.

The handlers, the unsung heroes of racing, packed up whatever the musher may have thought unnecessary and drove their dog truck back to the kennel. They won’t see their mushers again until the finish line at Nome. The unfortunate few may be meeting their mushers and teams at the Anchorage airport, where they will have flown back too after dropping out of the race.

The lesser know Yukon Quest, another 1,000 mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon, finished last month. This race is a nod to the mail carriers, supply haulers, prospectors and adventurers who traveled the rough and unforgiving trails from the Alaskan Interior to the Klondike. It was born, like all good things, over beer and burgers at the Bulls Eye Saloon, which stood until just a few years ago a mere 5 miles from our place.

“In 1983, four mushers sat at a table in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska. The conversation turned to a discussion about a new sled dog race and “what-ifs”.

  • What if the race followed a historical trail?
  • What if it were an international sled dog race?
  • What if the race went a little longer?
  • What if it even went up the Yukon River?

As early as 1976, a Fairbanks to Whitehorse sled dog race had been talked of. But it wasn’t until this conversation between Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and William “Willy” Lipps that the Yukon Quest became more than an idea. The mushers named the race the “Yukon Quest” to commemorate the Yukon River, which was the historical highway of the north. The trail would trace the routes that the prospectors followed to reach the Klondike during the 1898 Gold Rush and from there to the Alaskan interior for subsequent gold rushes in the early years of the 1900s.

The first Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race tested both race logistics and the talents of all involved. Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks in 1984. During the next 16 days, 20 teams arrived in Whitehorse.  Six teams were forced to drop out along the way.

Sonny Lindner became the first Yukon Quest champion, completing the race in just over 12 days. ” (from the Yukon Quest website)

Our friend, John Dixon, who has run in two Iditarods, getting set to start the Quest 300, which is a qualifying race for the Yukon Quest.

The Quest is a grueling marathon and features several summits teams must climb and historically extreme temperatures that plummet to 40 below and colder. And its start, at the beginning of February, guarantees more darkness than daylight. Eleven of this year’s 26 entrants scratched and two were withdrawn because they pushed the help button on their SPOT trackers both races now use.

Quest mushers and their handlers experience the same chaotic, pre-race activities and every racer tends to look forward to just pulling the snowhook and getting underway. While the teams head down the trail, these handlers begin a very different adventure from their Iditarod kennel counterparts. For them, the following 8 to 14 days, is an exhausting game of hurry up and wait. The reason – several of the checkpoints are on the road system (road is a pretty loose term).

Wait for it……

Soooo, if we need to get to a checkpoint?……

Handlers are forbidden from even touching a dog and if they do, the consequence is that the musher is withdrawn. So what do the handlers do?

Well, they drive and drive and drive. And then wait and wait. They sleep in the cold, in the dog truck. They drink copious amounts of coffee. They eat a lot of junk food. And when there is a signal their musher is coming in, they scramble into action, ready to cheer, cajole, comfort,listen and sometimes be yelled at by an equally sleep-deprived musher. If a musher decides to drop a dog from the team, the vet will examine the dog and determine if there is a need for medication. Then and only then can the handlers take control of a dog and from that point on they are responsible for its care. Once the musher has left a checkpoint, the handlers must ensure that their team’s spot has all dog poop, straw and trash is cleaned up. Sounds glamorous doesn’t it?

A team not far from the Mile 101 checkpoint.

Rolling into a checkpoint.

The Dawson checkpoint is different because it is where all mushers take a 36 hour layover. Handlers have spent a few days driving 400 miles from Fairbanks, to Two Rivers and back through Fairbanks to Circle. They have climbed an almost 4,000 foot summit – stunningly beautiful in clear weather, but migraine inducing when the snow and wind start up. The road is notorious for ice, dangerous S-curves and frost heaves that rattle the teeth. Once their musher has left Circle, the handlers double back 155 miles to Fairbanks and then cover 900 miles to Dawson City. Along the way there are dropped dogs to feed and exercise, flat tires to change and brief pit stops for humans.

Do you see the moose?

Breaking down on this stretch of road requires mechanical and survival skills.

Do you see the dogteam? The black specks in the middle of the photo are a team climbing Eagle Summit.

In Dawson, each team is assigned a quiet area, across the river from the town itself, and handlers get to work setting up camp. Every team has its own setup but they all involve a cozy, covered, straw-filled space for the dogs. During the 36-hours, handlers will walk dogs, feed dogs, massage dogs and watch over dogs. Mushers will eat, sleep, wash trail clothes, eat, sleep and of course visit their team. It’s time to rest and re-charge.

Once the musher is back on the trail, the handlers are the clean up crew and can’t get on the road until their site is inspected and checked off. From there, 530 more miles will tick off the odometer as the dog truck motors to Whitehorse, with stops in the checkpoints of Pelly, Carmacks and Braeburn, which has the largest and world famous cinnamon buns.

The dog truck at the top of Eagle Summit. The weather was spectacular!

After two weeks, endless miles, waking up disoriented and shivering in the cab of a dog truck, questionable hygiene practices and a diet that would kill weaker people, the adventure is done. Sort of. There are spring races to prepare for. Training runs to go on. Chewed harnesses to be sewn. Equipment to be repaired. Dog booties to be washed, dried and sorted. Poop to be scooped. Houses to be filled with straw. Massages to be done. Food to be prepared. Puppies to be played with. Dogs to be loved. Hard workers only need apply.

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