Armchair Musher: Anatomy of a Sled

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

This was written before the race began.

The beginning of the race seems the most appropriate time, given the relative order of the mushers’ arrangements, to touch on the contents & organization of the sled bag. It is the one chance a musher has to start a run with the perfect contents, since it is the only opportunity to incorporate the known variables of weather, number of dogs, exact time of departure, etc. into a program that has full access to the amenities of town. If you can’t find your bowls, for instance, you can run to Cold Spot & buy fourteen more (not that I’m speaking from experience). If you’re hungry, you can grab a breakfast burrito & a quadruple shot espresso before pulling the hook. You’ve done all of the packing before, you have a system, & you have carefully set aside the number of booties for this run, the mandatory items, the food bags, & everything else besides. But, you’ve got that pre-race feeling wherein you are suddenly confronted with the myopia of pending departure. You are convinced you’ve forgotten something, convinced you’ve underpacked & then, a minute later, convinced you have overpacked. All you really want to do is pull the hook & go, but first, this surreal gauntlet.

I won’t evaluate the merits of different types of sled design—the caboose, the tail-dragger, etc.—except to say that all innovations in sled design are an attempt to better distribute weight & to better accommodate the inexorable variations that the trail demands. Where the musher stands typically tends to be the fulcrum or heaviest point, with weight diminishing in its distribution towards the nose of the sled or towards the back of the caboose. Accordingly, lighter items find their way to the front, like sleeping bags, booties, extra clothes, dog coats, blankets & the like; whereas the heavier among the necessities tend to lean against the stanchions right in front of the musher—the cookpot, kibble, meat, fuel, axe & food.

The rules of the race demand that a musher have at all times in his or her sled the following items: a proper cold weather sleeping bag (rated -40 or colder), an axe, snowshoes, vet records, a cooker, adequate fuel (methanol) to bring that cooker to a boil, Spot units provided by the race for tracking or emergency & eight booties per dog. Mushers are strongly encouraged to also pack extra rations of emergency food for canine & human alike, along with first aid kits for both & a sled repair kit. Add to that list all of the items packed into drop bags (especially all of the meat & kibble required to get a team of fourteen dogs down the trail), & you suddenly encounter the very familiar problems of space running out & tender zippers snapping in the cold. (Accordingly, it may also prove wise to pack extra bungees or rope to hold your sled bag together after, say, a dog you’re carrying in your sled due to a sore wrist tries for five hours to burst forth out of every conceivable crevice because he is utterly convinced you have made a mistake & of course he can still run.)

Somewhere tucked beneath all of that or hanging in front of the drag brake, you’ll see a change of runner plastics as well. I recall vividly being behind Cody after leaving Braeburn in 2016 & happening to glance down at his runners just as a rock caught firm hold of one of his plastics & ripped it off as he sped along seamlessly. Even if they stay put, those plastics can be subjected to a punishing array of offending agents, from jumble ice to rocks frozen into riverbeds to not-yet-frozen feces to everything in between.

You may also see a dozen necklines & tuglines hanging from the stanchions. These do in fact come in handy & are best kept close. Some dogs come along on the race in spite of their tireless propensity for & delight in chewing through their necklines every time you stop.

As the race progresses, the sled bag becomes a more & more curious sight to behold. Those steadfast zippers have blown, zip-ties poke through makeshift holes here & there, the bib hanging from the stanchions has sloughed a bit & taken a beating, the grime of the trail has accrued, detritus has filled each corner like windblown leaves. The sleep-addled brain of the musher knows every speck of it, though. Countless repetitions have imbued in him or her a muscle memory so reliable that at each stop, the routine does not waver so much as submit itself to the vicissitudes of the will’s patience. It all gets done—it’s just a matter of how quickly.

& once done, the packing begins again, the sled is checked for faults, the dogs are bootied, & the great yawning wild darkness waits there at the kerf to swallow it all up in memory.  

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace