Quest again...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

John Schandelmeier shares his experience as a rookie on the trail. This is John's 17th year running in the Yukon Quest!

It is ten days until the start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.  The field of eighteen starters is the smallest group in my memory.  The food drops were completed last Saturday. Volunteers, far out numbering mushers, whisked away the drop bags as they were unloaded from trucks, counting and stacking before I could jump down from the tailgate.  Thirty-odd forty pound sacks of food; enough to get a fourteen dog team across one thousand miles of the Alaskan Interior.

What is in the bags?  There are similar bases to most of the mushers’ drops.  Dog kibble, beef, chicken and fat can be found in most.  There are individual variations in feed brands and the types of meat, and packaging but for the most part there are only minor differences.

The rookies’ drops may be a little less organized, depending on whether they have a good mentor or not.  The first year I ran the Yukon Quest, way back before snow was organized into a trail, I sent out a few fifty-pound blocks of ground chicken.  I had very limited racing experience and a small group of trapline dogs who were more like wild friends than the classic sled dog.  I neglected to cut the chicken up prior to the race.  I learned quickly that it is extremely tough to balance a huge, rock-hard chunk of meat on the top of one’s sled while bouncing along a minimal trail through the jumbled Yukon River ice north of Circle City. 

I finally pitched the unruly chicken into the brush and continued down the trail.  Naturally, less than a hundred miles further down the track, I ran short of dog food.  I had no idea that a single dog could eat eight or ten pounds of food every twenty-four hours.  Good fortune smiled when my pack of unruly trapline dogs found a good pile of frozen, half-spoiled salmon along the riverbank just upstream of the mouth of the Little Charley River.  Forty miles further on, Jeff King took pity on this sorry rookie and knocked the food that his dogs had not eaten from their pans---next to my eight-dog team.  I have not forgotten, though he may have; thanks, Jeff.  I have never run short of dog food again on any race.

There is more to drops than food.  There are supplements necessary to control potential diarrhea, maintain mineral health, and care for feet.  Hundreds of dog booties are not just a requirement, but essential.  First-time mushers today have fair experience racing, (the Quest requires five hundred miles of previous race experience), so the use of booties is very familiar.  My first Quest required no such experience.  My dog team time was mostly trapline and wilderness trips.  Booties on dogs that travel slowly and stop often are not as necessary.  I showed up at the race with very few booties.  I was quickly informed that without better preparation I was going to be sent home.  I rushed to the closest thrift store and bought their entire stock of baby socks and a roll of surgical tape.  Trust me; infant socks work!  Mushers are more knowledgeable today.

Besides being smarter than I was thirty years ago, racers are now able to have a truck at nearly every checkpoint along the trail.  This enables them to send enough equipment and supplies to cover every eventuality.   Handlers can recover the provisions that aren’t used.  Central, Circle City and Eagle used to be inaccessible by vehicle, now it is only Eagle that isn’t connected to the Quest trail by a maintained road. 

Dawson City, Yukon is the hub of preparation.  This town is the mid-point of the Quest.  Mushers supplies are shipped to here by the race organization, but they can also be brought in by each teams’ handlers.  Dog teams are required to spend thirty-six hours at this checkpoint.  It can be forty above or forty below.  Good groundwork in Dawson is key to a successful completion of this race.  Trucks arrive in Dawson after the eleven hundred mile rush from Circle.  They come loaded with leftover equipment from other checkpoints, plus everything necessary to set-up a self-sustained camp for their musher and fourteen dogs.  Tents, tarps, straw and untold other miscellaneous items are unloaded and organized----or not, as the case may be.

I opted not to have a truck or handler in Dawson on my first Yukon Quest.  I simply saw no need, nor could I afford the cost.  That is rarely done in the modern Quest.  The competition has changed, plus there are many more veteran mushers, not just competing, but also assisting in the event.  Veterans are more aware of all the little things that can go wrong on one thousand miles of dog trail.  Instead of packing twenty-five bags with supplies, thirty-five is now closer to the norm. 

Personally, I still pack very little in the way of gear for myself, but I have a plethora of items for dog care.  There may only be two hundred and fifty sled dogs on the trail in the 2014 Yukon Quest, but there are almost seven hundred bags of food and gear available to get them happy and healthy through ten days of traveling!   The next ten days are the time to second-guess the food drop list.  If you didn’t pack it, you don’t have it! 

John Schandelmeier