Back home in the UK where James is from, many of his friends think he’s crazy for what he does each February for the last four years! Extreme cold, risk of frostbite, sleeplessness, days and nights running together; all these things that happen when you’re a handler for the Yukon Quest. James handles for veteran Yukon musher, Rob Cooke (Shaytaan Siberian Huskies). James has two Malamutes back home, and after doing some research on the breed, he learned about mushing. Then one day, Alaskan musher Brent Sass’ kennel page popped up on James’ Facebook and that is how he learned about the Yukon Quest. Further research led to James’ online introduction to Rob Cooke, who is also British.
“I followed online for that year and the next year I decided to fly out to Fairbanks to watch the start,” James said. He attended a lunch the day before the start of the Quest that year that Rob had also been invited to and that is how they met. Rob asked James to come by the dog yard the next morning before the start of the race and he got a sense of what handlers do and that piqued his interest even more.
Rob and James kept in touch by email that year. Rob was really pleased with the way James and his dogs interacted, and eventually, “He said if you want to come out and do a full race with us, you’re more than welcome to,” James said. James and Rob have something else in common; Rob is ex Navy and James serves in the British Army, so there was another connection. “I’ve been really lucky my commanding officers have authorized the time for me to come out here,” he said. He and Rob spend a lot of time together training, not just running dogs, but Rob teaching James how to survive if he were ever to get lost or stuck out in the northern wilderness. “Everything you would do as a dog handler, especially on a 1,000-mile race, they are all really transferable skills to what we do in the army.”
James is a health care assistant and a training senior NCO with his unit, in charge of both clinical and military training. “A lot of my job is administration and logistics,” James said. Prepping, organizing, coordinating are skills that James has and skills that a good dog handler needs to have. “It’s making sure Rob has everything he needs before we go. If he thinks of something, I know the answer to give it to him. It’s moving him around so that he doesn’t have to think about all that and keep his head on the dogs.”
James said he would like to take up mushing himself if there was an opportunity He and Rob have talked about it, but for James and his career in the military, it’s hard for him to get the time that he would need to spend with the dogs in order for Rob to let James run his dogs. “If I wanted to run a 1,000 it would be at least September to the end of February.” There’s also the qualifying races that James has to consider as well. It’s a lot to consider. While he’s content to continue to be a handler, James says if he did get the opportunity, he would definitely take it.
In the meantime, James is clearly dedicated to Rob and even when he’s not in the Yukon, he’s following Rob throughout the year. “I watch Rob very closely, not just in the race, but back at home, to see what he’s doing. I really admire how tough he is,” he said. All the qualities and skills that James admires about Rob are things that James sees as ‘takeaways’ for himself in his personal life and his job. Whether or not James becomes a full on musher himself, he says, “As long as Rob invites me back to come and be part of the team, I’ll be here.”
James has clearly been bitten by the mushing bug and finds the transition of being in the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska, surrounded by sled dogs, enduring the extremes in weather, to life back in the UK difficult. “I definitely get back home and want to come back straightaway,” he said. The Yukon Quest is also about the friendships for James and year after year, people welcome him back as if he never left! “That’s one of the great things about the Quest. A lot of people say it’s the ‘Quest family’. It really is a family and that is why the Quest is so great.”
It’s so true!