And They’re Off!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

As the announcer counts down (3…2…1…GO!) the mushers are full of excitement but also full of a huge relief. Everything they’ve worked so hard for is finally here, and nothing else matters but the dog team in front of them. The crowd lining the chute is cheering loudly and happily, amazed at what they are seeing. They give so much energy to every musher. They let the mushers know that what they are doing is inspiring and brave and important.

As the dog team careens down onto the Yukon River, the crowd begins to peter out. People are up on the bluffs having bonfires and cheering for every musher that passes by. All the dog teams in front of you are evenly spaced now, a big, smoothly running train of teams winding down the Yukon. It’s so picturesque even the mushers are taking pictures. It’s cold on the river and you can feel it coming up from the ice and creeping into your boots as you stand on the runners and look over your sled and your dog team. Frost is collecting on the dogs’ fur. They are beyond powerful right now, your dogs. The energy is thrumming up the gangline and you are firmly on the brake. In fact, you’ll likely be firmly on that brake for a few hundred miles, trying to set a pace for your team that won’t burn them out. It’s sometimes scary to think about how that little 1’ x 1’ drag brake made out of snowmachine track and an inch-thick metal bar with two carbide teeth in it are the only thing you have to slow down 14 of the most powerful athletes on the face of the earth. 

As the miles go by you might be getting passed by other teams, or passing them yourself. Most mushers stop to snack their dogs every two to three hours, and you might take turns leap-frogging each other down the trail. On a 1000-mile race, nobody is in a big hurry at the beginning. Most mushers smile at each other and wave, help their teams around each other, remark on what a beautiful day it is. There’s a lot of race left and no need to be in a hurry. Quest mushers take care of one another and root each other on. 

This first run into Braeburn is 100 miles, so mushers will camp partway there. After about five or six hours on the runners, teams will begin to pull over and rest. I remember on my 2015 Yukon Quest, right at about six hours into the run I smelled a campfire. I came around the bend and there was Allen Moore, pulled well off the trail, enjoying the warmth of his fire while his cooker got snow melted down into hot water for his dogs. I pulled over about a quarter mile ahead of him along with five or six other mushers. Though we were all kind of parked in a row down the trail, we quietly set about our business. It was dark and everyone’s headlamps were shining and flashing as they dug through their sled bags and brought out dog food and human food. The smell of methanol burning as every metal cooker flamed and fizzled. It takes five gallons of snow to make one gallon of water, so the business of feeding the dogs takes time. While the snow melts down and the water gets hot, I went through my whole team and put down straw, took off their booties, rubbed balm into their paws and put warm coats on each dog. It was -50F/-45C. An hour later, all the dogs were fed and I had forced down a cold Mountain House meal (I had forgotten to pack human food in my start bags – so had Ryne! Our moms went and got us freeze-dried meals from the local gear store). I unzipped my -60F/-51C sleeping bag that Mandy Nauman had loaned me for the race and got in, boots, parka and all. I always lay my sleeping bag in the straw right up next to my wheel dogs, Hoss and Bullock. Hoss heaved his huge head onto the straw right beside my cheek and exhaled. I still had my headlamp on and watched as a shower of ice crystals fell from the sky and onto my face, onto my dogs. When it gets cold like that – real, extreme cold – all the moisture is wrung from the sky. I turned off my headlamp and closed my eyes. I fell asleep to the sound of my breath in my balaclava and to the sound of Hoss’s rhythmic snores. 950 miles to go.

Kristin Knight Pace is the owner and operator of Hey Moose! Kennel along with her husband, Andy Pace. 

Kristin Knight Pace