Think about your dog, for a moment. About every idiosyncrasy that she has, from her coat to her snaggle tooth, let’s say, to the kind of sighs she exhales when you’re idly scratching her ears. Think about why it is that you trust this creature, confide in her, love her. What would possibly compel you to spend your time with an animal rather than a human? Is it her loyalty, or honesty, or simple inability to dissemble? Is it that her joy seems the purest expression of that emotion you’ve seen? Is it possibly that you share a kind of language & bond that, though it’s been roughly approximated in how other people describe their dogs, is irreducibly unique to you?
Why every musher travels with a dog team is an extension of every answer you just conjured, laid bare over the course of countless miles, in landscapes yawning out in every direction. Just as how each fan of the sport engages with it is unique to them. Just as every champion of the sport sees in it some exalted expression of something pure & great, or as every critic of it sees something chaffing against their notion of that expression. Our opinions on this race, on these dogs & these mushers, are as diaphanous & multihued as the visages afforded by each passing mile from the runners. But we all congregate here, around this race & around this sport, because at the core of things, we all want to celebrate & promote & fiercely defend the incredible possibilities that dogs afford us.
Upon finishing the Quest this year, Allen reminded us that part of what makes the Quest great is that it might feel the same now as it did a hundred years ago. That is absolutely true for the mushers; pulling the hook at the startline replaces the thrumming howls of the crowd with the insular hush of a unified team plunging headlong into a patient adventure. We don’t see it from our trackers, or from updates like this one, or from numbers games or gossip-laden posts online, but along the trail, there is a very quiet, very deliberate, very slow drama unfurling for each of these mushers & their teams. Mushing brings the highest highs & the lowest lows, & they almost always transpire somewhere in the middle of a wilderness unpeopled, articulated in the actions of dogs & the reactions of mushers. They are adventures & narratives adumbrated by their very singularity, only brought half alive in their retelling. & when there isn’t a retelling available, our passion as fans can lead us to speculate. & where there is speculation, there is inevitably misinformation. Information proliferates so swiftly, out here in the civilized world, imbued with the urgency & passion & love & defensiveness that we all bring to the table. Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it’s entirely false. No one is guilty for wanting to know the details of the trail, but from time to time a line is cast, & in our frenzied need to know, to know immediately, the hook sinks in & we are borne along almost against our will, needing to believe something to tide us over. “We murder to dissect,” said Wordsworth. & in our desire to dissect & to participate, we engage in conversations, & because we are people & not dogs, those conversations are sometimes lacking in respect & honesty & integrity. A dog cannot communicate from afar, will not judge a subject it cannot behold, does not communicate circuitously & does not sidle from a pointed moment. We could all learn something there, myself included.
I mention this all because a race like this year’s Yukon Quest conjures every emotion possible for us as fans. Fans of this race & sport are as integral to its success as the mushers & the volunteers, especially as it should be noted that those who run the race & volunteer for it are perhaps its biggest fans. We are all avid followers of what is a very small community, relative to other athletic pursuits. It can be easy or tempting or downright confusing to try to separate what happens on the trail from how people like myself report upon it, but rest assured, they are two very different things. Where there is no division, though-- & where I hope that all of us, as fans, mushers, critics & otherwise can come together—is in our deeply rooted & fiercely defended advocacy for the dogs. We are all of the same mind in wanting always what is best for our dogs or the dogs on trail, & where we disagree on how to see that passion manifest I would urge us all to try to find common ground in generative discussion & positive discourse & to apply our energies to constructive ends.
A musher knows that his or her energy travels insidiously down the gangline & infiltrates the psyche of every dog on the team. If the musher is elated, the dogs speed up. If the musher’s exhaustion leads to despair, the dogs slow & tire & fall into the same grinding rut. What I would suggest is that in reviewing the race, in following it, & in our advocacy of the sport in general, we try to engage with one another always with that same spirit of constructive conviviality. That we hold one another to the same high standards of responsibility. What we demand of each other, we demand of ourselves in kind. We have so very much to learn from one another. & truly, if one dog on the team strays from a forward focus, we all have a great deal to lose in sliding back.
In closing, I hope that while we all as a community continue to strive for the best in our sport, we choose in parting to celebrate the Disney-like story of Matt’s victory, or the obvious fitness of Paige & Jessie’s teams flying into the finish chute, or—& this may be a favorite of mine, simply given the contrast between his generally good-humored taciturnity & the exuberance of his dogs—Rob’s beautiful team of twelve, tails flying high as they leapt four feet in the air, ready for another thousand miles. Rob’s team finishing this race epitomized everything we hope to see in our dogs when we set a hook & tell them “good job.”
Thank you to the Yukon Quest for letting us participate in some way in this year’s race. & with that, thank you to the vets, volunteers, board members, logistics folks, PR folks, mushers, dogs & our incredible Yukon Quest fans. See you next year.
Kristin Knight Pace and Andy Pace are both veterans of the Yukon Quest and co-owners/operators of Hey Moose! Kennel.