Insights from an Armchair Musher

Monday, February 13, 2017

From this position, it’s impossible to know both the reason for Brent scratching & the overwhelming, exhausting heft attending that decision. It is always our nature as fans of the race to theorize, devise explanations & impose our feelings upon the events that unfold on trail. The truth is, only one person in the world can claim to have any true understanding of what compelled that call.

What I can tell you with confidence & certainty is this: Brent, as he always does, put dogs first & set aside everything else. Everything else, as it turns out, encompasses months if not years of preparation, planning, training, expense & intimate familiarity with the cast of dogs on the line. No one walks haphazardly into the Yukon Quest office to hand over the entrance fee on a whim. Mushers have these races in their sights for years, working toward their goal with a singularity of focus that is borderline obsessive. Prior to the Quest, every one of these mushers has spent innumerable hours with their dog teams, first free running in the summer, then ATV training in the fall, truck training when the light snows of October & November dust the roads, & then finally on sleds as the winter progresses & deepens. These are dogs raised from birth, whose every idiosyncrasy is catalogued & memorized. These dogs are the reason we garner paychecks, the objects of all of our exertion, the centers around which the circumference of our schedules spins. Every penny, every last iota of energy, every shred of our brain power is spent establishing our plans for these races & doing our damnedest to execute them. These are not only our companions with whom we work our way down the trail, but our friends, our confidantes, our cheerleaders, our families. I have a human daughter & I say that with certitude. My own Mom tells me that with my daughter I will see my heart walk around outside of my body for the rest of my life. This is absolutely true. It is also true that l see my heart extend down the gangline every time I hook up a team. That I hear its joys echoed in the thrilled yips & howls of my team. That I see its nadirs reflected in the sympathetic glances that my wheel dog casts over his shoulder at me. & that there is very little I can imagine in this world that would ever prevent me from doing everything I could to ensure & fiercely protect the safety & well-being of my dogs. I have been fortunate in my friendships to learn from people like Brent in this regard.

The Yukon Quest provides its mushers with an amazing dichotomy: the ability to run our dog teams in some of the most stunningly beautiful wild places our two countries have to offer & the certainty that the incredible vet team, the other mushers, the organizers, the board, & the fans all coalesce in their shared insistence that dogs come first. As Quest veteran & highly esteemed dog man Mike Ellis reminds us, if you always put the dogs first, every other decision is easy, no matter how seemingly difficult or agonizing or disappointing.

Our tendency as fans is to offer sympathies in these instances, & those sympathies are very much founded. It is a heartbreaking & shattering thing to let loose one’s clutch on a dream. But more significantly, we can all recognize a demonstration of how simple our priorities can & should be. Those of us who are new to the sport & who have years of mistakes to make ahead of us can look at decisions like this & rest assured that even champions can & do throw consideration of victory aside if it means they aren’t putting dogs first. It is a lesson that underlies everything we do on the trail, & one in which the resolute bond & the unflinching heart of the race shines clear.

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

Andy Pace