Armchair Musher: Checkpoints

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The basic layout of the race is fairly linear to the eye—the checkpoints establish the connecting dots & the topography dictates largely how the trail winds its way from one to the next. So it would seem at first blush that running a race with so few checkpoints is a fairly straightforward proposition, but the cascade of variables in this race always does its very best to shatter the framework of what seems straightforward as swiftly as possible.

Over the course of the race, I’ll be describing the checkpoints (& hospitality stops) as they come into play, but just for now, I’d like to touch briefly on what transpires for a team in a checkpoint for those who have wondered from afar.

From miles out up-trail, a team starts to sense that something is drawing closer—especially a veteran team that knows the route. The dogs perk up, their ears jut into the air, their tails betray a piqued curiosity that ripples into the musher standing behind them on the runners. Meanwhile, in the checkpoint, a number of volunteers have been watching the tracker, armed with the foreknowledge of the team’s imminent arrival. Days previous, they have arranged the makeshift space, pulling cots into back rooms, hauling in drying racks, setting up camp kitchens, hucking bales of straw, lining up drop bags alphabetically, hanging posters made by local schoolchildren, talking with members of the community & doing their best to stay awake. A few of them will be huddled around a burn barrel wringing their hands & stamping their feet to keep them warm, their eyes locked tight on the trail. At the first sign of a headlamp, one among them will yell “dog teeeeaaaaaaam,” at which point whoever is at hand with any interest will come rushing out, pulling on their parkas, to take a look at the incoming spectacle. Under a yellow banner, the team comes to a stop & is greeted by a host of volunteers & checkers. The sled is checked for mandatory gear & the musher declares whether he or she will be passing through or staying. If they intend to pass through, they access their drop bags swiftly & head straight down the trail. If they intend to stay, the musher is advised of where to park & then the team shoots a fantail of snow from the claw brake as they navigate their way to the spot where they will bed down.

Whether or not a musher chooses to stay depends on a number of factors. First & foremost, most mushers have a race schedule that they try to adhere to as they go that divides the thousand miles into intervals of run & rest. If they want to stick with fifty-mile runs, for instance, they might camp along the way from Fairbanks to Two Rivers, blow through that checkpoint & then stay in Mile 101. Sometimes, a musher just likes a certain checkpoint or hospitality stop & builds their plan around the intention to stay. Other times, a storm comes along & pins everyone in one spot longer than intended, or the temperature is such that a checkpoint proves preferable, if not essential, to a trailside stop. The only certainties are that mushers will take a mandatory four-hour rest at either Mile 101 or Central, a mandatory four at Eagle, a mandatory 36 in Dawson & a mandatory eight in Braeburn.

If the musher does stay, once they park their team they begin a routine so firmly & enduringly engrained in their muscle memory that they can do it in moments of unparalleled exhaustion. They have timed this process, winnowed away the excess, streamlined their every footfall to make it as efficient as possible. Down the line with snacks for dogs, back taking off booties, up with straw, off to fill water for the cooker & hang clothes to dry, fire up cooker, coats on dogs up the line, wrists & pad check down the line, prepare dog food to soak, back up the line with liniment & ointment, back down with wrist wraps or shoulder coats, up the line with bowls & bucket, feed dogs, maybe sneak a bite of human food, feed out the rest of the dog food, gather bowls, prepare sled for next run, pack sled, head inside with essentials, hang everything else up to dry, eat approximately fourteen pounds of food swiftly, revel in the company of these wonderful people, drink a gallon of water to motivate the awakening process & then fall asleep for an hour in a small dark room full of snoring mushers the collective smell of which is perhaps best categorized as otherworldly. Then, wake up, eat ten more pounds of food, drink all of the coffee, get dressed, booty the dogs & pull the hook.

The level of focus & competitiveness informs the fluidity & efficiency of that process. Frontrunners are fine-tuned machines when it comes to their packing & their systems, & though they are as happy as anyone to see other people, they are counting seconds where the rest of us are counting minutes, maybe by the dozen. You can see that in checkpoint rest times: frontrunners will clock in & out at precise intervals whereas those in maybe less of a hurry, while still holding to a race plan, may have a bit of spillover if the coffee is particularly good.

Once the team departs, their handler(s) allow a buffer just in case the musher needs to come back to the checkpoint for any reason. Once they touch the straw or the items left behind, those become off limits to a returning musher. After about thirty minutes or so, the handlers rake up all the straw into garbage bags to cart off & tuck all of the discarded booties, supplies, & miscellany from the drop bags up to haul home in the truck. Handlers are also available at a number of the checkpoints to take any dropped dogs along with them.

When the last musher has passed through a checkpoint, those same volunteers that set it up carefully & methodically take it all down, cleaning up after everyone else along the way, leaving only the odd bit of straw stubble frozen into the ice, the packed footways of their bunny boots, the lingering smell of the last dregs of coffee & all else in its proper place. It is the yawning emptiness of the auditorium after the dance, but instead of stray fragments of confetti & slicks of spilled punch, that vast expanse of frozen white snow shows paw prints & runner lines for a brief while, until the wind blows & the snow falls & the trail is swallowed whole again.

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