Armchair Musher: Handlers

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

While the mushers wind their way through the storied miles of the Yukon & settle into some of the most gorgeous country imaginable, there is another group of people making what some might consider a comparably daunting & arduous trek: the handlers.

Perhaps you have an idea of how critical & buoying & crucial a handler really is. The felicity of any race depends entirely on their ability to perform their duties with equanimity & proficiency. A dispossessed handler can throw a musher’s fragile mental state into a cascade of whirling emotions that don’t serve the team well. To be fair, a dispossessed musher can certainly do the same for a handler, but one of the central talents of a handler is to deflect the absurd behavior of his or her musher in an effort to hurry them along.

So it is that as the mushers cover the roughly 160 miles between Circle & Dawson, the handlers load everything up into dogtrucks of varying degrees of functionality (the busted dogtruck is almost a rite of passage at this point, although some trucks demand the rite be performed a dozen times or more) & turn towards Dawson, a ludicrous 1,056 miles away through some of the most lonesome & desolate country you can drive. For us, coming up only from two hours south of Fairbanks for our races, the handler drove roughly 2700 miles each race. I will repeat that this drive is nearly as isolating & barren as the trail. If you’ve never driven through Destruction Bay & the Kluane country, for example, you are missing out on a landscape every bit as vast & jarringly unpeopled & wild as any you’ve seen elsewhere. Kluane Lake itself stretches & sprawls for untold miles & affords the wind a funnel through the surrounding peaks. One little bridge crosses its southern tip, right at the bottom of a pass, where gales spill over from the South & East. Right there on that bridge, in the one most exposed piece of road on the whole trip, Quest fable tells of the Shaytaan team’s truck breaking down. I can attest, in any case, that there is no team better equipped to work their way out of a windstorm. At least there’s that.

Through that country & all that darkness cut the headlights of the dogtrucks, driving without cease, stopping only at the border or to gas up or for donuts at Tim Hortons. Bleary-eyed, desperately in need of sleep themselves, the handlers haul into Dawson, their tired engines presaging their arrival. Do they sleep? Do they rest?

Consider your last long road trip. Maybe you drove four hours, say, to visit with family. Maybe eight hours to go on a longer vacation. You stepped out of the car & shook your head & thought about having a beer & just relinquishing the need to focus so keenly, didn’t you? You blinked your eyes demonstratively, hustled into whatever building awaited you, relaxed.

The handlers, meanwhile, arrive in Dawson after over a thousand miles of driving & immediately begin construction of a campsite for their musher & team the improvisational durability of which would delight MacGyver. Tarps & static rope & Arctic ovens & lengths of cable loop around every surrounding tree, eave or other available protuberance. Bales of straw compose the walls, neat & orderly stations are assembled with astonishing rapidity to allow for the swiftest possible execution of every necessary task. Camp is scouted, methanol bottles filled, the vet tent located, split spruce & birch hauled to the camp site by plastic Paris sled. Drop bags are emptied & organized, food prepared & waiting for incoming teams. All the while the wind off the Yukon shivers its way through every element of the camp’s design. From above, in the darkness of the subarctic night, the headlamps scurrying about must appear some kaleidoscopic ballet orchestrated to the symphony of wind gusting & dog barking. It is a beehive of activity from start to finish.

Once the camp is assembled, it is time to again obsessively consult the tracker. An hour before the musher arrives, one handler goes out to retrieve three hot human meals for the musher. Another prepares a feast for the dogs, warm & waiting. The moment the team arrives, the handlers in Dawson (unique among all the checkpoints) are permitted to interact with the dogs & help. They will spend the next 36 hours tending to every dog obsessively, massaging, feeding, loving, walking & being there with the team in the straw under a blue tarp somewhere on the banks of that fabled river. They will fall asleep with emu oil in their hands, working on a dog’s wrist. They will haul five-gallon buckets to & from the hotel a hundred times, wash the putrid clothes of the musher, bring food to the hotel room, post updates to social media sites & generally keep every cog of the machine oiled & spinning. & do you want to know the most curious thing about it? Handling for the Quest is one of the best times you will ever have in your life. There is as much love for the dogs among the handlers as there is among the mushers, & arguably a great deal more sacrifice during the weeks of the race. Some among them are familiar to race fans, either because they are race veterans themselves or because they have achieved legendary status among fans & handlers alike (I’m looking at you, Captain Stoller and Dr. Smeller). They, too, become a sort of family, sharing in the same astonishment at their lot, breaking through the same wind drifts on the same horrid roads, sipping the same coffee in the same strange places. I’ll never forget how palpable the bond was between Kevin & Mel, who were helping me last year, & everyone involved in the absurd escapade of merely getting to Mile 101 through that whiteout storm. Everyone ancillary to the mushers spoke their own language had their own inside jokes, had triumphed through a harrowing journey all their own. & there they all were, laughing in spite of it all. Kevin & Mel may curse Eagle Summit until the day they die but I saw at least that fugitive joy & pride in them & knew that it was uniquely theirs, quite aside from whatever I was doing on the trail.

All of this to say that as we watch the trackers creep along & as we focus our energy down the sinewy curvature of the Yukon valley or the offshooting Fortymile, let’s not forget that somewhere in the sweeping arc of darkness circumscribing that country, there are dogtrucks puttering their way boldly through the night, filled with people as in love with this sport as you can be, giving their time & energy & love to an enterprise that is inarguably absurd. & when they arrive, they will perform minor miracles under headlamps & those miracles will go unseen & unnoted. So from the comfort of our armchairs, a toast for them. Here’s to the handlers—thank you, each & all.

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