Armchair Musher: A Tale of Two Teams

Saturday, February 9, 2019

2-9-2019 12:13 PM

A tale of two teams.

For fun today I thought I would try and answer a few fan questions by means of a comparing two teams who are currently in the long stretch between Dawson and Circle to talk about camping, rest, and speed.  This is a section of trail where teams will definitely be camping, either trail side or at hospitality stop. A hospitality stop is unofficial and offers some comfort to mushers, food or a warm place to get inside. But it is not staffed and mushers do not have drop bags to re-supply with. When I refer to camping I mean the planned stops mushers take to break up this incredibly long section into manageable lengths.

The race rules clearly set out the mandatory rest and where team mush take it:
Rule 21. Mandatory Stops:
• Dawson City: 36 hours
• Braeburn or Carmacks, musher’s choice: 4 hours The starting time differential is added to the layover time at the chosen checkpoint.
• Eagle: 4 hours
• Two Rivers: 8 hours
During each mandatory stop, every team will be evaluated by a YQI veterinarian. The musher must be present during the evaluation. Vet books will be signed by the examining vet and musher. Race Veterinarians will report their findings to Race Officials.

But clearly this is not enough rest to go 1,000 miles. Mandatory rest is as much for the vets to have a good look at all the teams at key points in the race, as it is for rest. Musher will take a great deal more than the mandatory. For instance, I expect we will see teams later in the race opting to stay longer than four hours in Eagle to rest up for the next long run.

We see pictures from checkpoints of mushers feeding their team, or packing their sled. And most folks have a good idea of what goes in in checkpoints. Musher sign-in, park the team, take off booties and bed them down on fresh straw. Then they make the dogs a meal, feed and care for them.  Once that is all done the musher still needs to eat, maybe do some organization and repairs to the sled as needed, and then nap.  Depending on the length of the stay mushers may feed again before getting the team booted up and heading out again. Camping trail-side or at a hospitality stop is very similar. Without the signing in, or the added convenience of your drop bags and supplies. Because of this mushers need to carry some pretty substantial loads of dog food and meat, as well as extra booties so that you can put fresh booties on your team at each camp spot. As much as I love and appreciate race checkpoints – which are volunteer run by the way, so MUSH THANKS to the checkpoint volunteers!! I have to say for me the trail side camping is a special time for me to be completely alone in the wilderness with my team. There is a peace to it that you just do not get in a checkpoint. Picture this, you are having a nice evening run, the team is rolling along while you scan ahead with your headlamp looking for a nice place to pull over. After finding a spot you set up camp and have a delightfully quite time to be with your team taking care of them. Being alone with your team and your thoughts is a nice break from reporters and photographers.  It gives you time to reflect on the journey, and at least for me, to appreciate where you are.

Mushers decide when to camp based on many things, their plan, their watch, the conditions, and their team all are considerations.  Once you find a spot you call your team over, set your snowhook and basically do the same chores I listed above. Straw is carried out on long runs, usually on top of the sled in a bag or strapped on. Dog food is made using a cooker with a three-gallon pot to melt snow. Dogs still get food, rest, care, and new booties. And if possible, the musher may sit on the sled bag lean back or (my choice) curl up on the straw with the team, and try to get a nap in.

So let’s look at the progress of two teams camping and see what the data might suggests. Once again Melinda came to my aid and made some very useful graphics based on the Trackleaders data. We are looking at the two Siberian teams on the trail, Rob and Isabelle. Both experiences mushers. Long time Quest fans should be familiar with Rob already. But what you may not know is that in addition to a successful mushing career in Europe Isabelle has also completed the Iditarod in 2015. Let’s look at the graphics Melinda was kind enough to make for me.

These images are from the same time, so you can see right off the bat that Rob is a full rest ahead of Isabelle, he was already leaving Eagle having done his rest there as she was just starting. And based on location they were resting at approximately the same places. O’Brien Creek gravel pit is just up the highway from where the teams get off the 40 Mile River and onto the Taylor highway, a spot I mentioned in an earlier post is a popular camping spot. But if you look closely Rob is able to take shorter rests, and is still holding very good speed. The theory behind why this works is – if you have good speed it will take you less time to get to your next rest spot, so your team has not been running as long as a slower team would to get there. Therefor you can take less time at the rest spot and still give your team enough rest to do the next run. And as I keep saying it is the balancing of the run rest pattern that allows a team to preform to the best of their ability. Going back to before Dawson you can see that Isabelle did a few longer runs with longer rests, where Rob appears to have been more conservative. One might speculate that is the reason he is now ahead.

Historically the race has been dominated by Alaskan Huskies, although mushers like Rob, Isabelle, Martin Massicotte, Mike Ellis, and Blake Freking  have successfully run the Quest with pure breed Siberians. This year we also have Hendrik Stachnau with his Greenland Dogs and Malamutes. And then there is Michael Telpin, a Native Chukchi of Chukotka, Russia who ran a team of traditional Chukchi Dogs. So although many distance mushers prefer the Alaskan Husky, it would be incorrect to say they are the only dogs running this race. Also accomplished Siberian musher Karen Ramstead is actively involved in the Quest as a volunteer and race official.

As I was working on this post I had the opportunity to chat with Rob’s lovely wife Louise, and she was kind enough to let me share some of our conversation with y’all. It will give you some personal insights into the Shaytaan Siberian Huskies Sled Dog Team, and the mind of a musher as explained by his wife. Enjoy.

*The following is quoted from Louise Cooke, and I thank her for letting me share this with y’all-

“We started off running dogs in the UK, and at the time (1998) only purebreds registered Northern breeds were allowed to race. So we got a couple of Siberians and it was fun, so we got a couple more... Rob got hooked, and to cut a very long story short, we now live in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory with 64 Siberians (and a Karelian Bear Dog).

Rob's whole reason for moving over here was to run the Yukon Quest, and he first did that in 2013. He's run it every year since, barring 2014 when he was a judge on the race. Running Siberians is always going to be more challenging than running Alaskans, but our team does ok, and it's always a pleasure when they finish in front of Alaskan teams! We've never been tempted by Alaskans, lovely though they are. There's just something special about Siberians. They are happy, determined, quirky dogs, that quite frequently drive you insane. Which maybe explains why he keeps entering Quest come to think of it...”

Jodi Bailey