Armchair Mushers: Insights on Snow Conditions

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

2-4-2019 11:45 PM

With some time on my hands before teams arrive in Dawson I wanted to tackle another concern that was brought up. I was asked to address the effect of running on low snow trails. It is completely understandable that fans of the sport would have concerns, so best to address them.

What are the dangers of running on low snow, and how did the Yukon Quest successfully mitigate them? First off let’s look at how low snow conditions affect the different moving parts, dogs, sleds, and mushers. 

Dogs first, of course! They are affected the least.  Dogs run on snow, dogs run on dirt, dogs run on grass… you get the idea. So generally speaking, dogs in and of themselves are not really the problem. So why did the Quest decide to have mushers start with less dogs? Now here is where we get to the concern part. Without snow mushers cannot be as effective with the sled brake or snow hook. Which means, mushers have more difficulty slowing or stopping a team. So by lowering the number of dogs the Quest was taking power out of these highly amped teams and thereby giving the mushers more control. More control equals more safety. We all saw that the trail was a fast one for the first half, but happily it also appeared that teams handled it well, with a very low number of dogs being dropped in the first half of the race.  And looking at run times I would have to guess the dogs enjoy the speedy trails.

Now sleds and mushers, they do not fare as well on low snow years. Sleds are designed to slide on snow, not saying you can’t drag them over grass and skid them over ice, but it just doesn’t work the same way.  So sleds can take a real beating.  Here again the smaller team size made control easier. Of course there were still some spills and thrills out there. Let’s be honest here, this is a hard race, so there will be times when things do not go smoothly, that is to be expected.  Even on the best of years there are crashes.  I can tell you I have certainly spent some time on the ground over the course of 1000 miles, but I digress…

Back to sled issues. The plastic that slides onto the bottom of runners is not so lucky, no matter how much control you have running over gravel, twigs, and low snow the sled plastic is going to take a beating. And there is nothing to be done about that but smile and change your plastic at checkpoints.

“Now what is runner plastic?” Mushers obsess over it, so let me tell you a little about it.

 (I am pulling this part from a Blog Post I did years ago)

“Dan builds all the sleds we ride at Dew Claw. We actually joke that Dan builds them and I crash test them.  The foundation of the sled is the runners: long, flat, and curved up at the front end; the runners are the part of the sled that comes in contact with the trail. Although there are many styles and materials; from the traditional wooden runners to modern metals, they all serve the same basic function. Allowing the sled to slide along the trails surface. The sleds at Dew Claw are built using aluminum Rex ™ runners. Along with being very durable, they handle well on the rough and varied terrain we travel. They also have the ability for a quick change of runner plastic. A key feature for racing mushers. OK this is where we shift from the topic of runners to the original question, “what the heck is runner plastic?”

Here you can see Dan sliding on new runner plastic at the 101 Checkpoint during the 2009 Yukon Quest.

Runner plastic is a strip of specialized plastic that covers the bottom surface of the sled runners. Mushers choose different types of plastics with different attributes based on the trail conditions they are dealing with. Plastic is often changed at checkpoints or while camping to adapt to ever changing trail conditions. And that is one of the reasons a quick change system is such a benefit. It is also why being able to purchase a variety of plastics to send out to checkpoints along the trail is hugely helpful. Lets say at the start of the race temperatures are warm, that would make one type of plastic the best choice. Later in the race as temperatures and trail conditions change, another style becomes the best option.

Runner plastic also gets worn down over time. And rough or bare trail, rocks, and stumps can all gouge and destroy runner plastic. All of this makes it more difficult for the sled to travel down the trail, and can actually slow you down. During a 1000 mile race mushers will change plastic often in an effort to make sure they are traveling down the trail as smoothly as possible. With the runners and plastic we use on our sleds, the change can be made in a matter of minutes with no special tools.”

So now that we have covered the dogs and the sleds, how about the mushers. Again a 1000 is hard on a body even in the best of conditions. Again starting with less dogs, and less power gives more control, and ultimately made things better for mushers too. But again, being honest with y’all – yeah low snow trails are hard on the human body.  Our knees and hips are our natural shock absorbers, and they work overtime on hard trails. It is safe to say the mushers are starting to feel the effects of days on the trail. Luckily Dawson gives them a chance to rest and refuel too.

But let’s face it, we all know the dogs are the real superstars, and mushers are weak and hairless in comparison. If we didn’t pack the dog food they would probably leave us at home! 

Mush Love


Jodi Bailey