A handler’s journey on the Yukon Quest

A handler’s journey on the Yukon Quest
The Yukon Quest is regarded as the most grueling thousand miles by dog sled in the race world, but did you know that this goes beyond the mushers and the incredible canine athletes? Some races on the road system require handlers. What do handlers do? They drive from one checkpoint to the next to make sure the process of coming through them is as easy as possible for the dog teams. They locate the mushers supply bags that have been sent out beforehand, make sure to direct the musher to fuel for their cookers, a water source for dog food, straw for dogs to sleep on and find the optimum parking spot that allows the dogs great rest and easy exit out of the crowded checkpoint.
In the Yukon Quest, you end up having to drive your dog truck over 2,000 miles in order to snake all over the great white north to meet the mushers, racing there before they may arrive. The Yukon Quest is known to have a curse on handlers in this regard. You may run into an array of problems and I believe that my story on this year’s Quest may have been the ultimate starter package for this curse.

My husband, Richie Beattie, ran his third Yukon Quest this year and it was my first, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. To keep the saga of unfortunate events along the way brief, we encountered everything from our “Quest Guest” donor from the starting line getting stranded on the Chena River at -35°F with my dad/co-handler, then a truck breakdown not more than an hour out of Fairbanks resulting in a U-Haul rental and a borrowed dog trailer from a friend. Followed by said trailer snapping off the ball hitch in the middle of the night on the Alaska highway, another twenty hours of driving at 35 miles per hour through snow drifted, windy mountain passes to get to Dawson City and a reoccurring flat tire in remote Yukon that was miraculously fixed by a kind man named Farren in Pelly. Oh yeah, and not to mention that series of events on my musher’s end of things, one which resulted in his team coming into Dawson without him, but that’s an entirely different story for another time.

The most important responsibility as a handler is to never let the musher know what obstacles you had to overcome to get to that checkpoint. Despite all the insanity that ensued on our way to Dawson, it was integral that Richie never knew about it until after the race. The stresses a musher faces out on the trail include sleep deprivation and temperatures ranging from zero to sixty below with wind chill while pushing their bodies to the limit. That is enough to ruin their race if they allow it to interfere with caring for their dog teams and keeping them healthy and happy. For greatest chances at a successful race finish, you must follow this golden rule despite your truck crashing into a ditch or the world being on fire. Whatever happened on the road to Dawson stays away from the musher’s ears!

During most sled dog races, handlers aren’t allowed to actually handle dogs, unless they get dropped out of the team. This is why the Quest is such a special experience for handlers. Once arriving to Dawson, you rush to set up a camp for the musher and the team’s mandatory 36-hour layover. This lengthy process entails shoveling out three feet of snow from your mandated camp site, erecting a shelter out of a tarp, strung between trees for the dogs to hunker down on comfy beds of straw, protected from the elements. Most camps also have an Arctic Oven tent with a wood stove going at all times to keep the handlers or musher warm as they rotate their time caring for the dogs. During that 36- hour period, you expect your musher will require a minimum of 12 hours straight of sleep and ingesting tens of thousands of calories to try and regenerate their degraded state of mind and body from 500 miles of sleep deprivation at sub-zero temperatures. Handlers have the amazing pleasure of giving dogs the utmost love and care during this time. Every six hours dogs need to be fed a high-fat, warm meal – lots of beef, beef fat, turkey skins – basically anything you can get them to eat, even if a picky appetite requires hand feeding them kibble by kibble. They will get high-class deep tissue massages on their sore wrists and shoulders that leave your hands so deeply infused with rosemary oil that you won’t be able to get rid of the smell for over a week. The dogs are very much enjoying this relaxing time and instead of their usual rambunctious selves, are basking in the comfort of their shelter, covered in straw and fleece blankets with cute prints on them while you curl up next to them and tell them how incredible they are and give them a million kisses and pets.

The transformation by the end of the 36 hours in remarkable. Unsurprisingly, the dogs hit a reset button, but shockingly so do the mushers and the enthusiasm to continue on for the next grueling 500 miles is as if they have already forgotten how much they endured in the first 500. The teams set off for the next leg. I say my goodbyes to my husband and the ten dogs that continue on and it feels a lot easier from here. We break down camp, have two more nights in the incredible, magical Dawson with aurora’s dancing overhead and load up the truck for the next three checkpoints.

Pelly, Carmacks and Braeburn were all amazing stops with more than adequate facilities for spending 24 hours at each location. The volunteers are eager and kind and the food leaves you stuffed and finding it difficult to get back behind the wheel and keep driving.

Despite all of the challenges handlers may face along the way, one of the most beautiful things about this race is the camaraderie you develop with those who have herded together at the checkpoints, including volunteers, vets and other handlers. You spend time together in your most delusional, vulnerable hours of sleep deprivation and share way too many intimate details about yourself. You play card games, do crossword puzzles and any other entertainment from before the 21st century you can access when there is no cell reception or internet. You smell awful, you look awful but your joy from making life-long connections to complete strangers overpowers any unattractive traits you posses at the time. Those moments are what make handling worth all the other strife you put up with along the way.

By the end of this particular race, there has been two feet of snow within 24 hours and we aren’t breaking any records this year. The time between the top two teams and the following teams was at least six hours a piece. By the time Richie finished, it was a full day and a half after the winner. The string of nine beautiful, unison black dogs come trotting beautifully across the finish line and I couldn’t have been more proud. I threatened to leave my husband a couple of times after all this race put me through because after a full night’s rest, he was already planning his next Quest and saying he wishes he was going to Iditarod in two weeks.

I think somehow, I will quickly forget about all of the stress I experienced along the way and we will find ourselves back here in the blink of an eye, and hopefully I got the Quest Curse out of the way and will come back a seasoned veteran next time. It may be the toughest sled dog race in the world, but no reward ever came without a broken down dog truck and several sleepless nights in some of the most beautiful country in the world.