A Rookie’s Reflections

Saturday, January 23, 2016

By Damon Tedford

If you are new to the Yukon Quest, exploring what the website and event has to offer, then welcome; and if you are a returning fan, we are delighted to have you back. I am excited about this opportunity to offer our Yukon Quest fans a deeper and personal look into this exciting race. Last year was a fantastic experience for me: I competed as a rookie, mushing with a team of incredible canine athletes from Mitch Seavey’s Kennel. I’ll draw from last year’s experiences to bring you a little closer to the sled runners. I will try to keep it fun, and have it read like a Wikipedia article with hyperlinks to photos or other web references for further exploration. Happy trails!

This weekend, Quest mushers are heading to Fairbanks or Whitehorse to have their dogs certified fit for racing by a team of Yukon Quest veterinarians, and their equipment and supplies collected for shipment to the race checkpoints. I remember this being an exciting time last year for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you are attending these events, you completed all the necessary training and prerequisites to race. For a rookie, this is a big achievement, and, more importantly, these Yukon Quest events commit you to a number of decisions about your team and how you plan to race.

The Yukon Quest allows mushers to have 16 dogs examined and certified fit to race. If you are as fortunate as I was last year, you’ll have more than 14 dogs from which to choose, and you will have to make some decisions on what dogs will form your team. I selected dogs based on their ability to command lead (respond to the musher’s command of gee [right turn] and haw [left turn]), soundness (consider recent injuries and injury history), consistency and reliability as an eater, and fitness. All things being equal, I selected a dog I enjoy being around over another equally capable dog: everyone can use a cheerleader when they are cold, tired and hungry: you and your dogs. If you have fewer dogs in your kennel or were unfortunate enough to have a team plagued by training injuries, you may need to lease or borrow some dogs to fill out your team roster of 14 dogs. Selecting dogs in this case will be based on your team’s needs: do you need a leader or just a reliable dog that gets the job done. The dog should have also completed a similar training schedule to your own; otherwise, the criteria listed above are also applicable.

More than likely, mushers already have a race plan. The competitive mushers will have reviewed the race times from previous years if they do not already know them from past experience, and their desired race tempo (a fine ratio of running and resting) will be reflected in their training schedule. Training usually starts in September. So to say that the food drop commits a musher to a plan is slightly overstated; however, it does impose some limitations. For instance, you cannot outstay your ration of food at one particular checkpoint.

Then there is the logistics of all this madness. All the food requirements, clothing, veterinary supplies, batteries, and mom’s frozen chili the musher and the team will need to support themselves is laid out on the floor, rechecked and placed into plastic feedbags that are labeled with the musher’s name and the checkpoint location for which they are destined. For some great photos on the masterful organization and planning required for preparing drop bags, check out Allen Moore’s food drop preparation at the SP Kennel Dog Log. Like Napoleon’s army, your team marches on its stomach. You need to have enough food to feed the beasts and be prepared for changes in weather. If it gets as cold as -40 Fahrenheit/Celsius, you can bet that your dogs will need more food to keep warm and maintain their weight.

You may also note that three of the runs on the Yukon Quest are over 140 miles with the longest between checkpoints being just over 200 miles: Dawson City to Pelly Crossing. These runs warrant special consideration for the musher, as their sleds will be laden with large quantities of food. Mushers have no checkpoint from which to resupply during these runs.

Although, you do not need to have a handler identified by food drop, they deserve mention, as they are a vital part of the musher’s pit crew. Your handler will be driving your dog truck from checkpoint to checkpoint picking up the straw (mushers lay this down to rest their dogs) and garbage left behind by the musher and team before leaving on their next run. They will also collect any dropped dogs that were injured or unfit to continue the race. The job is not the most glamorous, but it is a vital to a smooth race.

Check out the Yukon Quest Facebook page and Twitter feed for photos from the food drop and the vet check. 

Damon Tedford, the 2015 Yukon Quest Rookie of the Year, will be offering a behind the scenes look, from a mushers perspective, of the different aspects of preparing for and then running the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest.