Dawson City

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Yukon Quest thrills its mushers & dogs for any number of reasons, some of them tangible & others entirely subjective & ineffable. It is, without any doubt, a Quest in the truest sense of the word, Homeric in scope, arduous in nature, & ultimately among the most rewarding accomplishments in our sport.

Presently, teams have begun with Brent to filter into Dawson. I’ll refer you to posts from various kennels for the details of Dawson camp (Smokin’ Ace has a great post on what it entails), & to either Cody at the Squid Acres blog or to Mushing Tech for the numbers game & some strategic overview. I want to talk about Dawson as the stopgap salve to the existential wound these mushers inflict upon themselves by traveling all these miles. Dawson as mirror to the palpable sense of historicity along the trail, as a kind of palimpsest yoking what drives us to run dogs to what drove the men & women of the past to wind their ways along the same trails.

This race is not run for its prize money. No one would complain if it eventually were, I don’t suppose, but even the champions of the Quest run it for a different, far more personal reason. That notion of a quest, I think, relies on imposing a dominating will directly through circumstances beyond one’s control. For Homer, it was a dizzying cast of characters presenting obstacle after obstacle in Odysseus’s long voyage home. (But then, he didn’t drive a dog truck to Whitehorse & willfully hook up fourteen dogs, did he?). It’s a bit like that for mushers too. By the time we pull the hook at the start line, we already carry with us the love & support of our families & friends, the endless favors of everyone who helped us get there, the honored responsibility of representing our sponsors. Perhaps we carry along our dreams of the north from childhood. Some of us carry keepsakes of those gone or far away from us. & we fare forward, mile after mile. Every time we look at the blinking red light of the tracker, we think of our parents watching the website obsessively, or our wives or husbands or children. We think of the kids that write us letters or send us pictures of cartoon-like mushers with spirited exclamations of “go go go!” Though the trail finds us alone with our fourteen finest companions, we’re never wanting for human company, not really.

But on top of that, there is the sheer fact of traveling in the frigid north. The Spirit of the North defines the Yukon Quest, defines its interactions & partnerships, defines the drive in its mushers & their dogs, & defines the stupefying core of volunteerism that allows for this event in the first place. Mushers drive their teams past dredges, dilapidated mine sites, cabins sloughing logs one by one to be swallowed back up by the land. They drive dog teams by abandoned homesteads reclaimed by taiga, past trucks driven into ditches & left forever. & then, miraculously, they drive dog teams into the most incredible places of all—the homes of people living in the bush, opening their doors to a ragged bunch of tired strangers that smell like sweat & dog & who knows what else. & then, Dawson.

Dawson, to tired eyes, is the living embodiment of some distant fantasy of what the past looked like. It is the manifestation of the northern paradox of needing to be alone in wild places while needing to converge now & again. For a musher halfway through this race, it is the perfect place to recharge while not relinquishing our connection with the ghosts of a bygone era. You earn Dawson, I feel like—not just because you have mushed 450 miles, but because you have participated firsthand in the northern spirit along the way. You’ve signed your name on the Scroggie Creek wall, seen wolf prints along the Stewart River, felt the icy clutch of the Yukon & battled mile upon mile of jumble ice. & if you did it right, you arrive in Dawson utterly humbled, utterly in love with your dogs, & utterly exhausted. But you arrive as a bonafide cast member of the ongoing play of the north.

It’s hard to convey what that feels like to those who haven’t experienced it. It is the best of humanity. & it is the best of humanity because it is closest to what is just plain old canine: candor, humility, honesty & the sheerest, keenest kind of joy imaginable.

Starting tonight, mushers will have a chance to recalibrate, regain their sense of reason, rest up & take stock of what they’ve accomplished & what yet lies ahead. But however comforting that shower & bed, however delicious the plates of eggs & bacon & steak, I assure you the mushers are already looking down the trail, down the towering canyons of the Fortymile, to Earl & Sandy’s place at Clinton Creek, where moose chili waits on the stove, wolves cast echoing howls off the bluffs outside, & the Spirit of the North presides over all.

Andy Pace is  veteran musher of the Yukon Quest and owner/operator of Hey Moose! Kennel with his wife, Kristin Knight Pace.

Andy Pace