HANDLING THE QUEST

The Yukon Quest is arguably the toughest sled dog race in the world. Handling for it is no cake-walk either. Rachel Steer takes us through the 2010 Quest through the eyes of a handler. When Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and Willie Libb came up with the idea of the Yukon Quest in 1983, they hoped to create a race that was challenging and pure in a way that the Iditarod had failed to do in their eyes. The course, following Klondike Gold Rush era mail and transportation routes between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon, would utilize the Yukon River for more than 400 of its 1,000-mile distance and travel over four mountain passes that rise above 3,400 feet in elevation.Now, this idea was hatched in a bar south of Fairbanks, but what great northern schemes have not been germinated in a bar?Like Williams, Shank, Rosser and Libb, my 2010 Yukon Quest adventure started in a bar as well. I was not racing the Quest though—I was going to be a handler for my brother Zack. The night before race start, Zack, his wife Anjanette and I stopped by Ivory Jack’s, a notorious drinking establishment in the Goldstream Valley just north of Fairbanks, to watch Hobo Jim, Alaska’s balladeer, perform. Zack wanted to see if any other mushers were trying to avoid the night-before-race jitters by downing a few beers. I just wanted to hear Hobo Jim—famous for his Iditarod Trail song—sing some of his bawdy tunes about dogs, fishing and drinking.I am not a big drinker, but it didn’t take me long to understand if I was going to be a handler in this race, I better get used to spending a lot of time in bars. Unlike the Iditarod,where the trail covers roadless sections of western Alaska, a majority of the Quest route can be followed by car and many of the checkpoints are roadhouses along the way. Mushing fans appreciate the bond between driver and dog, knowing it is as strong as any championship-winning Stanley Cup or World Series team. Yukon Quest teams include one other unique addition: the handler. Typically relegated to the home kennel, in the background of distance racing’s glory events, handlers take an active role in the Yukon Quest, driving from checkpoint to checkpoint picking up dropped dogs, raking straw and cleaning up after their mushers have left. At the halfway point in Dawson City, where mushers have a 36-hour layover, handlers are allowed to be even more involved—feeding, walking and massaging dog teams while mushers rest and recover for the second half of the race. Five days after my Ivory Jack’s initiation, I found myself in another notorious bar—the Sluice Box Lounge at the Eldorado Hotel in Dawson City. Zack was only halfway through the race and my quest had already been an adventure beyond imagination. In Circle, on day two of the race, our dog truck broke down. Anjanette and I hitched a ride with John Kozak, one of Belgian musher Sam Deltour’s handlers, down the Steese Highway. In Fairbanks, Anjanette stayed behind to get the truck repaired while I continued on the Richardson Highway with John toward Tok. Jake Berkowitz, Zack’s full-time handler, was going to meet me there with our new, makeshift dog truck—the Steer family Toyota minivan.In the record-setting two and a half days it took Hans Gatt, Lance Mackey and Hugh Neff to travel 492 trail miles between Circle and Dawson City, we traveled south to Tok, east through Whitehorse and, finally, north to Dawson City—1,054 miles total. The Top of the World Highway, connecting Chicken to Dawson, would have shortened the drive by 500 miles, but it is closed during winter. We weren’t the only team having transportation problems. Ken Anderson’s dog truck also broke down in Circle and I heard a rumor that one of the other handler teams came close to disaster after the US-Canadian border. I started to feel like the handlers, most traveled in teams of two, were like Olympic figure skating couples. Forget profiles about the athletic stamina and endurance required of dog teams and mushers, reporters traveling along the trail would meet deadline by filing stories saying, “Steer and Berkowitz move toward Dawson City while Williamson and Bohannon lose a trailer tire at Destruction Bay.”By Dawson City, the traveling circus of race organizers, media and handlers had bonded, making sure to look out for each other on the road and at the checkpoints. Jake and I quickly became fodder for jokes and chiding when we showed up in the minivan.Jake, a two-time Iditarod finisher, was giddy with excitement at the chance to have a front-row seat to watch Hans, Lance and Hugh’s race routines and strategy for nine days straight. This was the first time Jake had been a spectator at a race and he quickly realized that, as a handler, he had unprecedented access to watch and interact with mushers he had raced against in the past. In Pelly Crossing, we saw Hans Gatt—recovering from a slow run where Lance Mackey and Hugh Neff made up substantial time on his lead—pull an unusual move. After telling media (and anyone else who was around to hear) he had doubts about being able to win the race, Gatt laid down in the noisy media/handler area and pretended to sleep. As soon as Mackey and Neff left the checkpoint, Gatt was up and moving—ready to chase down the two unsuspecting leaders. With a keen eye for dog aptitude and musher behavior, Jake was able to pick up on signs of sleep deprivation, indecision and outright craftiness that I never would have noticed.While waiting for mushers to arrive at checkpoints, we had long discussions with other handlers and race officials about the changing face of distance racing. Quest veterans Jon Little and Will Forsberg discussed this revolution on Little’s Check Point blog during the Quest. In the 90’s Charlie Boulding showed us what loping dogs and alternating short and long rests could do. A few years later, the Robert Sorlie-led Norwegians blew the Iditarod field away by running slightly slower, but longer-distance legs mixed with shorter breaks in between. This year, a hard and fast Quest trail paired with perfect weather conditions allowed Gatt, Mackey and Neff to transform the Norwegian model (slow and long) into what I’m calling the Double Whammy—fast and long runs of 10 to 12 hours matched with short breaks of three to four hours. It’s a double dose not only because runs are fast and long, but because Mackey and Neff are notorious for doing both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod races in the same year. In the past, long distances between Quest checkpoints meant mushers had to carry food and gear for campouts and multiple feedings along the trail. This year, with their faster speed and longer run times, Gatt, Mackey and Neff were able to travel light—relying on fewer meals and campouts—much like on the Iditarod trail. On the downside, this race strategy led to extreme levels of sleep deprivation which was evident in all of the top mushers.Nobody seems to know the limit of these remarkable animals, but everyone I talked to agreed that the weak link on today’s elite dog mushing teams is the musher himself.By Carmacks, 177 miles from the Whitehorse finish, the Team Steer minivan was getting a bit too cozy for comfort. Zack had dropped three dogs and the task of repacking the van with dogs, dog food, a sled, spare runners, Dawson camp gear and two humans became a spectator sport for the rest of the handler teams. We reached our limit at Braeburn, the final checkpoint, when Zack dropped his fifth dog. I started to feel like the Muppets, jammed into a bus on their way to New York City, singing “Movin’ Right Along.”As Zack and Ken Anderson battled it out for fourth and fifth place along the final miles of the Takhini and Yukon rivers, Jake and I checked in to a hotel for some much-needed rest and a shower. Traveling the Quest as a handler is not an easy job, but I felt guilty complaining about the lack of sleep and erratic hours whenever I saw a trail-weary musher trudge out of a warm checkpoint to booty up his dogs for the next leg. To our relief, Anjanette arrived in Whitehorse with the repaired dog truck just a few hours before Zack finished. With Ken Anderson’s team bearing down, Zack had to push his dogs and himself all of the way to the line. Zack was still catching his breath when Ken’s team trotted across the finish, just three minutes behind—it was the closest top-five finish in Quest history.Yukon Quest organizers distribute a handlers packet before the race each year describing the rules, route and protocol for each musher’s support team. The packet includes such helpful gems as “keep your dog truck out of the ditch” and “if you miss the Central checkpoint you are asleep at the wheel.” But my favorite part is this note from long-time handler and volunteer Joe May: “I suspect there’ve been marriages made, divorces announced, 300 mile silences, tons of potato chips consumed and maybe germination of a notion to run the race someday.”The 2010 Quest delivered on many of the promises made in that packet, but there are a few I would suggest be added: don’t expect to sleep, be ready for the unexpected and, of course, get used to hanging out in bars. •Rachel Steer is a lifelong Alaskan. She writes the Alaska Traveler column for Alaska magazine and loves adventuring in the wilderness with her retired sled dog, Amber.

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