Armchair Musher: Food Drops

Saturday, January 18, 2020

There is an obsolete word that I love that decidedly shouldn’t be obsolete: resistentialism. It refers to the phenomenon of believing that inanimate objects engage in spiteful behavior, & it could well also refer to the parade of mishaps, blunders & endless steps one takes along the way to tying up the last drop bag. I remember in my bones trying to cut 50-pound blocks of beef into a seemingly infinite number of bread slice-sized pieces with a bandsaw older than me that would habitually throw its blade every four minutes. I ended up bringing the firewood that needed splitting over next to it so I had some place to channel my rage, but nonetheless, all of the meat got cut. & then there are the freezer bags in which we put the meat that burgeoned & split. The ziplocks that inexplicably would not close. The Velcro of the booties pulling off in long threads that wind around your gloved fingers. The meat dust from the saw speckling your eyelashes & accruing in the folds of your balaclava. & of course, always that one dog that gets loose & helps herself to whatever she’d like, however neatly bundled & labeled.

On the night before food drops, it is inevitably at least thirty below, the wind riffling through the spruce & the stars aswirl overhead. Maybe the northern lights are lapping emerald & deep-bruise purple across the firmament, weaving in & out of the muted white wisps of the Milky Way. Maybe it is the most beautiful sight in the world, but if you’re a musher or handler or incredible friend helping pack drop bags, you may never get a moment to look up & enjoy it. It is an elephantine task, a frozen labyrinth that brutalizes everyone involved. The front yard features billowing poly bags strewn in piles organized around checkpoints. Around them swirls a constellation of items in smaller bags, hopefully accounted for on a checklist that is itself inevitably frayed & soaked through with salmon oil & blood & coffee stains. The process resembles a scene wherein the entire mushing gear shed & the entire stock of dog food (roughly a ton of meat for this race alone) are both detonated with explosives & then dutifully, carefully picked up, piece by piece, to be bundled & shipped off in bags that will determine the felicity of every dogteam’s race.

No pressure.

For the novitiates among us, drop bags are the equivalent of sending provisions ahead down the trail for a hiker on the ATC or PCT. The difference is that these provisions have to feed & maintain fourteen dogs & one human while running 100 miles a day in weather as cold as -70F & conditions as varied as you could possibly imagine. Typically, every checkpoint for a musher will have a drop bag including dog food & snacks, replete with smaller bags weighed out to roughly 10-12 pounds kibble & 12 pounds of thinly cut beef, fat, tripe, liver & fish per meal & then other smaller bags with precisely the number of calculated snacks for a full dog team to stop once every two hours minimum; a bag including human food (freeze-dried meals that took up a day or two last week in preparing) & replacement provisions (i.e. batteries, glove liners, new boots, new Neos, change of clothes, etc.); a bag including veterinary necessities (i.e. pink ointment, emu oil, wrist wraps, shoulder coats, famotidine, etc.); & then the items planned out for specific locations according to the musher’s notions of necessity: extra sets of dog coats, dog blankets, sled repair bits, pick-me-ups (a pack of gum goes a long way), socks, hand warmers, socks & more socks. All of the little bags go into one big poly bag that can’t exceed 50 pounds in weight, labeled with the musher’s name, the checkpoint, which number the bag is in the series of all the bags to be sent to that checkpoint, & whether or not the musher is running the 300 or the 1,000. Bags are tied in all sorts of creative ways. We always did a wrap of duct tape that left a folded-over tab on the end so that an exhausted future version of ourselves could most efficiently pull once & have access.

The number of bags per checkpoint will vary wildly depending on the musher, his or her race plan, how confident he or she is in their initial packing, & how long the stay is intended to be. For instance, a stop at a mandatory 8-hour checkpoint obviously necessitates more food for everyone than a quick blow through a resupply checkpoint. & then there’s the Dawson bags. Those capture all of the food for the whole 36-hour stop, for man & beast alike. All of the rope, tents, tarps, stoves, etc. that make up the camp. & on top of that, all of the trail supplies to get you to Pelly, 210 miles off with no checkpoint between. That tends to be a fairly significant stack of bags.

Just writing this, incidentally, conjures a sort of PTSD anxiety that will likely stay with me until my dying day. We still bolt awake in the middle of the night dreaming we’ve forgotten to put booties in the Braeburn bag. Food drop, many mushers will tell you, is the absolute worst of the worst—all logistics, all busy work, no dogs. Dropping off your drop bags & driving away, consequently, is the absolute best. You are liberated, free of the weight of your own mind bearing down its scrutiny on every conceivable twist in the trail & how it might manifest further need. Now all you have to do is race.

Driving away from food drops with an empty truck conjures a sense of being able to breathe again. It is a great unburdening, & like so much involved with this race, it is yet another instance wherein the musher puts full trust in his or her ability to care for a team through whatever circumstances present themselves. In a way, it’s an opportunity to run the race before running the race, to envision the idealized version, to wage your hopes against all hazards. On the trail, you meet yourself anew at every drop bag, hopefully kindly. Sending off those bags lays a trail for you to follow that provides a comfort in an otherwise comfortless trajectory. Maybe your wife helped carefully pack a certain item, or your husband cooked your favorite dish, or your best friend wrote a joke on the outside of the bag, or your parents slipped in a note of love & encouragement. Sometimes, those drop bags are the only trace of the human along a stretch. For as much of a pain as they are, a musher is always pleased to greet them again, if only to tear through them & leave their carnage behind, one fewer logistical hurdle to worry over, one more length of the run adequately supplied & one fraction of your many stresses put to rest.  

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