Archive for February, 2009


Friday, February 20th, 2009

As usual it was below zero. I was volunteering to help direct a musher along the race route of the annual Carbon Hill Thirty Mile Sled Dog Race. I loved watching the bond between musher and dog team. I wanted to learn more.

I had such a good time helping with the Carbon Hill race that I decided to volunteer to help at the Yukon Quest. The Quest is billed as the “toughest sled dog race in the world.” The Yukon Quest Trail follows historic gold rush and mail delivery dog sled routes from the turn of the 20th Century. Mushers and their teams of dogs will travel for nearly two weeks, racing across some of the last pristine wilderness remaining in North America.

The slightly longer, and more publicized, Iditarod sled dog race is run in Alaska and the Yukon Quest crosses the international boundaries of Canada and the United States. Both of these races are the best known of the long distance dog mushing events in the world.

Over the course of three days leading up to the Valentine’s Day 11 AM start, I had the opportunity to chat with rookie and veteran mushers alike. I asked several veterans which of the two races was toughest. None would commit to one being tougher than the other. All of them agreed that each was tough but in different ways. Here are some of the fragments of our discussions, “Well, the Iditarod is longer but the checkpoints are more frequent.” Another said “The Iditarod rarely has a checkpoint more than ninety miles apart, whereas the Quest has some checkpoints three hundred miles apart.” And a third grunted, “The Quest is generally colder, usually much colder. But then it’s run nearly a month earlier than the Iditarod.”

Ron, a neighbor of ours on the Annie Lake Road, was hosting Jon Little, one of the Alaskan mushers. For Jon the set up was ideal as Ron’s daughter, a previous Quest musher, had an empty dog yard with houses that Jon could use for his team. And there are miles of ideal mushing trails for Jon to train on during the days leading up to race day.

At the Musher’s Banquet, Ron introduced me to Jon and invited me over to his place the following morning to shoot some photos of Jon and his dogs.

The following morning dawned clear and very cold. It was still and -22°F. Nancy and I bundled and booted up and drove over to Ron’s place. The five minute drive did not even begin to warm the car. Within minutes of our arrival, Jon and his team of fourteen dogs accelerated into the forest. This was his last training run before the race start the following day. With my camera tucked inside my down parka and my hands balled in fists inside my choppers, we hiked down the mushing trail to a point where the team would be passing in the next forty-five minutes.

Besides racing sled dogs, Jon is a writer. The night before, he shared that he is facing a crossroads in his career. With two very young children, mushing takes too much time for an unpredictable income and his writing gig has been hit hard by a withering economy. He admitted that he is facing some very difficult decisions following this year’s race.

After Jon returned from the training run with a newly glaciated mustache and beard, he and his two handlers moved efficiently in the cold as they unhooked and fed the dogs. We hurried, stiffly moving towards the warm house where cups of hot tea were clutched by numb fingers.

Jon had little time to waste. Within an hour of his getting the dogs cared for a filming crew from Mexico, yes Mexico, showed up to interview and film Jon as he readied his gear and sled for the race. The four men were swaddled in highly regarded, and I might add highly priced, Canada Goose Parkas. Their unseen faces were wrapped in layers of fleece with their handsome south-of-the-border dark eyebrows and eyelashes tipped in frost nodules. Stoically, they filmed Jon, who had changed out of his mushing gear into lighter clothing and his baseball style cap and sunglasses. Clearly this was just another winter day for Jon.

Jon shared how he would pack his sled for the race. It would weigh roughly 150 pounds at the start of the race. Some of the items packed into the sled are a cooker to heat up a dog food mush and melt snow for water, a gallon of fuel, a spare gangline, snowshoes, a sleeping bag, some food for the musher and mostly dog food. He also carried a two-quart homemade insulated thermos. It looked more like a foam and duct taped covered cookie jar with a four-foot length of plastic tube to use as a drinking straw.

I wondered if somewhere he stowed a copy of a small book I spied on a book rack in Whitehorse titled, ‘God is my Musher.’

The interviewer asked Jon about men and women competing against each other in the Quest. Of the twenty-eight starting teams, six of the mushers are women. Jon shared that dog mushing is one of the few sports that men and women can compete equally. “Each gender,” he shared, “has its advantages. Women tend to be lighter in weight therefore less weight for the dogs to pull.” He smiled as he added, “And generally I think that women have better communication rapport with the dogs. On the other hand men have better upper body strength for handling the sled on rough sections of the trail.”

When asked if he had any secret strategy for this quest, Jon smiled wryly and offered, “Well, actually I do.” At this point he hesitated before cautiously adding, “But you have to swear not to tell anyone.” Feeling privileged to hear his words, the film crew and the handful of others all edged forward and nodded our heads or raised our mittened hands.

Jon paused and tentatively continued, “In dog racing there is practically a mantra that you go six on and six off. That means run the dogs six hours and rest them six hours. Well, I believe they are fully capable of going more, so I am going to try eight on and four off. The key will be to try and get the dogs into a slower tempo in the first few hours. Then I need to be consistent and develop a pattern. If I can do that, I think they will fall into the groove. I will ‘snack ‘em’ (which is slang for give giving the dogs a chunk of frozen meat) frequently, maybe every two hours.” With great admiration Jon said, “Each of these dogs burns 10,000 calories every day during the race.” Smiling he added, “That’s more than Lance Armstrong burns during the Tour de France cycling race.” Jon looked down at his sled, “If I can keep them from going too fast in the first hours of the race and establish this pattern, I think we will do all right.”

After the film crew hurried to the warm and idling SUV, Jon shared that he was concerned about one of his lead dogs not eating the way it should. He would pay close attention to it over the following twelve hours and make a decision to run it or not.


In the predawn darkness I spent five to ten minutes gearing up in layers of silk, wool and down clothing. As I dressed I thought of the simple task of readying myself for a tropical day in Mexico, where in a matter of seconds I can pull on a swim suit, tee shirt and slip into my flip-flops.

The Quest volunteer meeting, fueled by big pots of coffee and trays of doughnuts, was held at 8AM. The gathering took on the flavor of a military operation. The bottom line was to keep the public from the staging area an hour prior to the 11AM race start. Prior to 10 AM, the public could wander wherever they liked. The reality was that the bitter cold would keep the crowds indoors until race time.

I paused to speak with one of the young Alaskan woman mushers who took advantage of the warm headquarters and Quest souvenir shop to tuck her heavily wool clad feet into the oversized white bunny boots. “It’s good weather for the dogs,” she offered. “But I wouldn’t want it much colder.”
The temperature outside was hovering around -20°F.

As we waddled to our assigned areas, mushers and handlers were crowded around their respective trucks unloading dogs from their straw bedded berths. Musher’s trucks are easy to recognize as they have the names of their respective kennels and primary race sponsors painted on the truck doors or dog box.

One truck pulled a long enclosed trailer that held both equipment and shelves of dogs. The dogs were housed next to each other in cubbies that resembled a coop of chicken-laying boxes. As soon as the trailer door swung open the morning chorus of dogs began. Up and down the street the dogs shared the excitement of the day. I was reminded of the Disney movie of ‘The Lady and the Tramp,’ where the dogs howl messages across the city from dog to dog.

The procedure from truck to truck seemed similar. Get the dogs out of their boxes, onto the ground and clipped to a long chain that is affixed to the front and back of the truck. The lined up dogs each pee, creating a line of steaming pools of urine that melt into the packed snow. Dog handlers dish up their race day breakfast ration. It resembles a warmed-up thin gruel of water with a handful of soggy dried dog food added. Then, the dishes are gathered and the dogs are placed back into their boxes. This is not supermarket dog food, it is the good stuff that is designed to fuel and hydrate these canine athletes.

Then the sleds are taken off the tops of the truck boxes and lowered to the ground for final packing. Empty, these racing sleds weigh less than thirty pounds. New materials and design make these sleds much faster than the old fashioned sled used by Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, as viewed on the television show of the same title that I watched as a kid.

As labeled bags of frozen meat are stowed carefully in the sled, some mushers strip off the bases of their runners to replace them with unrolled coils of plastic runners. Plastic has low friction at all temperatures; it is strong, light, and dog excrement doesn’t adhere. It is easy to attach and fairly durable. Each of the mushers carries sets of spare runners. This will be important when they must cross over the four mountain ranges where exposed rocks might be encountered.

Gang lines, collectively made up of tow lines, tug lines and neck lines, are stretched out in front of the sleds and piles of colorful harnesses and dog booties are readied. Then the handlers begin unloading the dogs from their berths. The dogs seem to know the routine because their yowling, yapping, howling, barking, yipping and bawling creates a collective din that energizes all of us.

One at a time, the dogs are hurried to their position along the tow line and clipped into place. Then each of the dogs four feet is fitted with small colorful dog booties. The booties help protect the feet from ice. Cold snow has a sharper, more crystalline and abrasive nature. Since dogs don’t have sweat glands like us, they rid their body of excess heat by panting or through the bare skin on the pads of their feet. For that reason, it is likely that the musher will remove the dog booties at checkpoints or along the trail if the conditions are good.

Mushers are constantly inspecting their dogs’ feet throughout the race. An old mushing expression says, “As go their feet, so go the dogs” meaning that everything rides on the feet of the dogs and even minor issues will lead to trouble if they are not dealt with quickly and effectively by the musher.

Some teams had their lighter-furred dogs fitted with light wrap-around jackets, fastened around their chests and torsos to prevent frostbite on their tender bellies.

I was mightily impressed at the care of the dogs. In the staging area, Official Quest Race Veterinarians moved from team to team giving them thorough checkups. Each sled starts the race with fourteen dogs. At checkpoints the vets will check the condition of each dog. It is not unusual for dogs to be dropped along the way. Unlike basketball, there are no substitutions allowed. To finish the race, mushers have to have at least six dogs pulling the sled.

A constant huddle of photographers, tape recorders and movie cameras are focusing on Newton Marshall, the ever-smiling musher of the highly popular Jamaican Dog Sled Team. Newton drives a cart pulled by dogs in Jamaica and this is his first Quest. His primary mentor and supplier of dogs for this race is three time Quest winner, Hans Gatt, who is gearing up right next to Marshall. Marshall has been in Canada for weeks prior to this race running dogs. Up to race time I was really hoping his primary sponsor, singer Jimmy Buffet, might show up to help send the Jamaican team northward.

I tried taking photographs, but it was very cold on bare fingers and much of the time I kept my fingers balled into fists deep in my felted wool chopper liners. Looking around I found plenty of arguments to wear real fur. I saw full parkas of lynx and coyote fur and I think every musher wore a parka that was trimmed in a wolf or wolverine ruff.

One hour before the race begins, a loud voice breaks into the cold morning over the public address system. “All unauthorized people must leave the race staging area. Please make your way to the viewing area behind the fences.”
The energy level picks up and the dogs sense it. The dogs raise a cacophony. They clearly know that their release is closing in.

British musher, Mark Sleightholme, has drawn “bib number one,” and must be ready for the countdown that will free him and his fourteen dogs at the eleven AM start. Each racer that followed would leave every three minutes.

Crowds gather outside the fenced in street. All, or at least most, unauthorized folk politely leave the staging area. A bundled man, with a very nice camera hanging around his neck matter-of-factly tells me, “I’m a photographer.” Seeing that he is not wearing a “Zone A” access card I answer, “That’s great, so am I. Great hobby isn’t it?” Shepherding him towards the public viewing area, I tell him, “You will have to shoot your photos from over there.”

Another parka-clad pair show their lanyard and card while declaring, “We are part of a movie crew from the states. . . Colorado.” They are likely here to film Colorado musher Bill Pinkham. Finding that they likewise do not have proper credentials I reply, “Hey! I’m from US as well.” Their smiles and raised eyebrows spoke of relief in finding an ally in this foreign country, the Yukon, that claims is “larger than life.” Clearly, a fellow patriot would look the other way. Hah! On this day, passports and residencies be damned! I am an official volunteer for the Yukon Quest and today my creed is the same as the one custom painted across the hood on musher Jason Mackey’s truck: “In Dog We Trust.”

The pair of Pike’s Peakers looked glum and sulked away like abused dogs when I informed them that until they had the proper credentials I could not allow them entry. I was hitting my stride as a volunteer and it felt good.

I look around and see teams and mushers making last minute adjustments. Small groups of handlers and mushers are conferring, pointing, nodding and hugging. But it is the dog hugging that moves me most. Nearby Colleen Robertia, a rookie musher from Alaska, is pausing to pet and talk to each of her team. Last minute love chats with their dogs. Her team is primarily made up of a rabble of runts, rejects and rescued dogs. I feel like I am violating a sacrosanct act as I pull out my camera to photograph Colleen’s last and longest hug. It is a slender tawny dog that leans in close to her partner with her eyes closed in contentment.

Less than fifty paces from the starting line, the Yukon River gave off clouds of fog. Under the starting chute, every time a team lined up to take off, their heavy and excited breathing gave rise to plumes of steamy breath as they waited their turn.

With the dogs pulling, lunging, bawling and so full of energy, it took at least six to eight dog handlers to hold them back as the musher and sometimes a second person stood on the sled brake, cutting grooves in the hard-packed snow as they moved up towards the starting position.

My highlight of the day came when a handler got my attention from my mundane duties of watching for more infiltrating “filmmakers and photographers.” One of the dog handlers, spying my orange mesh volunteer vest yelled over to me, “Hey we could use another handler out here. Want to give us a hand?”

I looked around. I was like a solo penguin standing rigid on the ice pack. He actually did address me! I hurried over.

Amidst the loud chorus of dog noise the handler shouted orders. “Don’t step on the dog’s foot and grab the tow line between the dogs and help us hold the dogs back as we move forward. Watch your feet and balance.”

As the musher released the line that anchored us to his parked truck and lifted his anchoring snow hook, we moved forward in a controlled surge. It felt wonderful to move my limbs and trot. I felt myself warming as I helped restrain the canine tide that was intent on getting on with the chase. Hunched over and hustling with the dogs, I was goosed in my wool-layered rear several times through three layers of clothes by the lunging dog directly behind me. No longer yipping, these dogs were huffing and driving forward. One growled at another and one of the musher’s handlers growled loudly, “Hey! No!” This was no time for dissension. Focus pups. As we leaned back skidding and dancing forward, I reminded myself, ‘Keep your balance Tom. This is no time to trip and go sprawling in this gauntlet of tooth and claw.’ Oh God I can see the headlines in the Yukon News: “Cheechako Handler’s Clumsiness Prevents Musher From Quest Start”

We stopped at the feet of a volunteer whose job was traffic controller. Holding his hands high over his head waving his fingers in a “come on motion,” we moved forward. Abruptly the controller reaches high over his head with the palms of his mitts halting us. We are on deck. The musher fifty meters in front of us is in the gate and I hear the countdown over the speakers that will send him down the trail.

During our pause, I spy one of the lead dogs squatting and taking a dump. The person at the front of the line is grinning and pantomimes back to the musher on the sled that the dog has dropped its goods. The smile and the thumbs up sign tell me this is good news. Is it that excess weight has been dropped and the dog will feel more like running? I certainly know that wonderful feeling.

I was reminded of the similar behavior that a flushing sandpiper or other bird has as it drops its whitewash droppings on the beach as it erratically exits. Quick flight and escape is a good thing.

The big voice emanates from the street side speakers, “Three . . .Two. . . .One. . .Go! See you in Fairbanks!”

And in the next moment we are shuffling to the starting gate. The dogs seem to know it. Suddenly I am overcome with a desire to run with this team. I wish I had a pair of these classy black booties strapped on my feet. I can feel the rhythm of the surge. Oh I want to go with you guys! I want to run 1,000 miles over the frozen Yukon River through the quiet boreal forest under the star-studded skies smeared with the bright streaks of the aurora. Let me join you in climbing mountains, crossing the empty alpine summit of Eagle and feel the rush and fear of a speedy descent.

I want to curl along the lonely trail on a patch of comforting straw that smells of summer haymows. My inner dogness is aching to run with the pack. Suddenly I think of the news I received just days ago that Taiga, our pet dog and sometimes puller, had been released from his earthen anchor. At thirteen years, his body had finally broken down and he was helped in moving on into the next world. I remembered fitting a large dog harness to his 120-pound frame and having him pull my sled of camping gear on a past winter camping trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota.

In those few seconds that we surged to the start, I could feel his spirit at my side and together we give each other a toothy smile, his long tongue is out and mine is exposed as my mouth opens wide in a grin of exaltation. My adrenaline is kicking in and suddenly I forget my chilled feet.

I am in awe of all the work it has taken this pack of humans and dogs to come to this point to run 1,000 miles on the frozen Yukon River, through the snow covered boreal forest, over four mountains and on to Fairbanks.

I am hardly aware that hundreds of people are intently watching us as we halt the team so that the musher’s sled is poised directly beneath the large yellow banner that announces the Yukon Quest 2009. Finally. We are here. I let go of the rope and turn to get out of the way.

“Thirty seconds!” announces the cadre of loud speakers. The musher finishes some last minute pats and words with several dogs. Before I return to the staging area, I bend down and pat the mottled head of the dog that had nudged me towards the start. “Good luck, safe journey friend” is all I can muster for a pep talk.

The dog pays absolutely no attention to me. The musher and the fourteen other huffing and puffing teammates all have their eyes locked on the end of the aisle lined with hundreds of bundled cheering people.

They stare ahead. There is no other direction.


(For info on the Yukon Quest Sled Dog race and progress on the race go to
When I posted this blog entry, Jon Little was in first place at the halfway point in the race.

To see some of my photos of the race start go to: