The feeling of leaving Pelly Crossing is one of bare vulnerability as you constantly double-check the contents of your sled, cross off everything on your mental packing list, take a deep breath of -40F/-40C air and pull the hook. 210 miles with no resupply – do you have everything you need for that many miles? If it’s -40F/-40C you’ll be snacking the dogs every 1-2 hours. If you have a 14-dog team, that’s more than 300 snacks, and each snack weighs a quarter of a pound. If you feed a meal every six hours, that’s four 15-lb meals (beef, fat, kibble and supplements). Plus you’ll want to have at least one extra meal and a couple extra bags of snacks in case you take longer than you planned or you get stuck somewhere in the cold. You have 105 miles until you can drop a dog with a veterinarian. If someone in your team gets tired or gets a hitch in their gait, you’ll have to carry them for a very long time. How does your team look? Is anyone questionable? Do they have a minor issue that can improve over the course of the race? Do you risk taking that dog with you? What if they’re your best leader? You still have 700 miles to go. These are vital decisions you’re having to make right now, and how much sleep have you gotten? A couple hours in the last two days?
Boy, leaving Pelly is such a leap. It’s the first of three major checkpoint-less runs in a row on the Yukon Quest, and being charged with that level of self-sustainability is thrilling or terrifying or both. That’s why places like Stepping Stone and Scroggie are hallowed ground for the mushers. On the runners with the heaviest sled you’ll ever have in a 1,000-mile race (likely around 300 lbs), you are working twice as hard around every technical turn, pushing twice as hard up every hill, sweating twice as much, burning twice as many calories. You are truly on your own. And then, a sign in the wilderness: “Burritos 100 yds”! A candlelit trail that winds through the woods. You can feel the Yukon is close – a behemoth, yawning expanse of ice. It brings all the cold in the world down to it. A magical collection of hobbit houses emerges. A whimsical fenced garden is covered in frost and snow, and for a second you think about summertime. The biting cold snaps you back to reality as a friendly voice greets you by name. They’ve been watching you on the tracker, waiting for YOU. Ready to help you park your dogteam. Hang up your mittens by a hot woodstove. Make you a piping hot burrito or some homemade spaghetti. Laugh with you around the tiny dinner table. Put you to bed in their bed and wake you up when you ask to be awakened. You lay your head on the pillow and pull the quilt up to your chin, snore for what feels like ten seconds and then someone is shaking your shoulder…time’s up. Time to go.
In a fog you stumble out to the tiny dinner table again. You pull on your warm wool liners and lace up your boots. If you’re lucky, they’ve had the opportunity to dry out all the way. If not, you pull them on still damp, knowing that the warmth of your body will dry them out the rest of the way. Your feet are beginning to feel tender but you forget it as you walk out the door in a veil of steam with a bucket of hot water for your dogs snoozing in their straw. In an hour you’ll have them all fed and bootied and your sled will be packed. You’ll go down the line one by one and up they will stand. As you attach one tugline and then the next, the dogs begin to bark. By the time everyone is hooked up the dogs might be howling, or slamming into their harnesses, or standing patiently, waiting for you to say the magic words: Ready guys? Faces forward, tails down, ears pricked and listening. The runners squeal on the snow and you disappear into the night, alone again. The river and trees, wolves and owls, the waxing moon the only witnesses to your biggest struggles; to your mightiest accomplishments.
Kristin Knight Pace is a veteran of the Yukon Quest and owner/operator of Hey Moose! Kennel with her husband Andy Pace.