Armchair Musher: Quest as Family

Friday, February 14, 2020

The first time we had anything to do with the Yukon Quest, we were contacted out of the blue by Alex Oleson, who wanted to know if there was any way we might be interested in volunteering at the Circle checkpoint. It was 2013, we were just starting our kennel & had been enthusiastically awaiting that race season as spectators & fledgling mushers hoping to learn more. Here was an opportunity for us to be on the front lines, 750 miles into the race, as the stuttering parade of exhausted mushers finally brought their teams off the Yukon. How could we turn it down?

We didn’t have any clue what to expect as we wound through the vermicular curves of the Steese Highway, the black spruce staggering in patches along the roadside, a herd of caribou pockmarking the way, the mountains shrugging us off. We looked at the topography in amazement. People run dogs through that?

At the Circle fire hall, we tentatively walked in to find the trailbreakers huddled around in folding chairs, warming up with dinged up thermoses of coffee, their gear strewn across the room & laid flat over every available surface. They didn’t miss a beat, smiling & greeting us warmly & welcoming us in. From that point on, everyone we met became family. All of the volunteers, vets, race judges, handlers, community members, mushers, media folks & everyone else besides all seemed to share the uncanny ability to stay awake all hours & a work ethic tireless enough to test that theory. In spite of the utter exhaustion that underwrote all of our endeavors, we all interacted joyfully, expectantly, as if aware we were taking part in something greater than each of us.

The next year I ran my first race. It was, of course, the YQ300. When I got to Circle, my wife had to force me to stop talking to everyone I had met the year prior, practically guiding me by the elbow to a cot to sleep for an hour.

The following years, my wife & I took turns—one of us would run the 1,000 mile race while the other handled, then we switched roles. & wouldn’t you know it, when I pulled into Circle, I was so thrilled to talk to my old friends that I somehow managed to cut my bridle in twain in the midst of my distraction. I am still in wonderment at this feat.

For veteran mushers, pulling into these familiar haunts is a rare chance not just to see another human, but a familiar one who is intentionally opening the door for you, treating you to the best of Northern hospitality. When you see the Live Nudes neon sign outside of Clinton Creek, your mouth starts watering at the thought of the kitchen table covered in casseroles & salads & cheesecakes & cookies. Or when you round the bend at Trout Creek, you know Mike will have moose stew in the crockpot & he’ll be there looking over his glasses at a book with his feet up, the radio playing the news soft from the corner. In Carmacks you can ask for the Mike Ellis special & without a word you are handed the largest plate of breakfast foods known to man. At 101, you are roundly encouraged in your pursuit to eat two pounds of bacon at a time. At each bend, you know you’ll see the checkpoint managers & volunteers that welcomed you the year prior, & that the vets who have come to know & love your dogs will be there, ready to help in every way possible. Stops in checkpoints are almost always too short, if only because you want to linger awhile around the stove, pour another cup of coffee, hear some tales from the trail, engage in the camaraderie that this race thrusts upon you.

When my wife was pulling up to the finish line in Fairbanks, she stopped her team shy of the yellow banner & the aureate glow of the lights over the bridge. She knew, like we all do, that the race must end, that this private, insular experience must come to a close, that you can’t turn around & weave back through the forests & rivers to settle longer in that lovely world. But you want to all the same.

The thing that makes the Yukon Quest the Yukon Quest, second only to the dogs that enable it, is its constellation of close-knit people & their love for what is an abjectly absurd enterprise. It takes a certain breed to love this sort of thing, but it gets under your skin & has a magnetism that is indescribable. People with whom you only spend a few hours become some of the dearest figures in your past. Whatever it is in all of that predisposes us to revel in this race, it dispenses with all of the formalities of introduction & allows us to meet for the first time as member of the same family.

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace