Homeward Bound

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn.” – Jack Kerouac

I’m off to the lower 48 now, after a big couple of weeks. I’ve had a few days of needed rest in Fairbanks…and all I did was handle. There are 14 mushers and hundreds of dogs resting up after 1,000 miles on the trail, and there are still 13 teams out there now. There’s a reason that the Yukon Quest is called the hardest race in the world.

As I head home, I’ll close out this year’s blog with a few random thoughts.

  • Things that I thought would happen that didn’t: extended and bitter cold (it was really only cold for a few days at the start), snowy travel (we only dealt with weather on Eagle Summit), crappy internet (I was shut out in Circle, 101, and Two Rivers, not bad for the Quest trail), brilliant northern lights (we only had a few glimpses, not like years past).
  • Things that I didn’t expect: an emergency vet visit in the middle of the race, a stunning rebound from Salcha, good sleep in a dog truck, plowing through drifts on Eagle Summit, a flat tire in Circle, Matt clawing his way back into the top five after a tough start, Bourbon emptying his bladder on my parka, Nate discovering my empty chocolate wrappers in the trashcan at the start (they were supposed to be snacks for the trail, but what can I say?).

I love that the unexpected things outnumbered the expected ones; that’s part of what makes a good adventure. And As for Matt running himself back into the race, I’m reminded of a Jack London quote: “Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” And that he did.

I always leave this race with a strong appreciation for the mushers and the dogs, and for the people around the Quest–but also with a renewed appreciation for the rugged wild of the Yukon. The Yukon itself is a remarkable place, perhaps one of the last wild places on this earth. Robert Service wrote a poem more than a hundred years ago called “The Spell of the Yukon” that includes the following passage:

From the big, dazzling mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it; Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some who would trade it
For no land on earth, and I’m one.

In addition to the incredible canine athletes, I always appreciate being around the mushers, handlers, race officials, vets, and the fans, too. And I’m also inspired by the people in these remote communities that not only tolerate the tough conditions but seem to thrive in them.

The Quest is just a little snapshot of their winter, of course, and I can’t claim to understand the day in and day out…but I saw enough to get a sense of things.

A few quick examples of life up here: there was a sign in the school in Circle that said it was a parent’s prerogative to keep their child home any time it was colder than 50 below (!), and kids were out on the playground in Dawson in weather that would have closed schools in a lot of places. I know these temps are old hat to my friends in Alaska and the Yukon–but it’s always eye-opening for a city kid from “Outside.” For context, I was dressed like an out of shape REI catalogue model…and I was whimpering.

As for my role up here, it was a privilege to be able to play a small part in Matt’s race, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I learned a lot from Amanda, Nate, and Matt, and I especially appreciated how they took care of Salcha (Matt’s ailing dog). It was such a lift to have her with us throughout the race.

As I type this during my flight to Seattle, the guy next to me is complaining about the internet speed. I half-listened and nodded, but what comes to mind is that I don’t think I heard anybody complain at any point during the Quest. Things didn’t go perfectly for anybody up here—but there’s a can-do attitude across everybody associated with the race, and across the communities themselves.

I want bring that attitude back home with me. I need to bring that back home with me. Everyone had a different race experience up here; perhaps that’s my Quest?

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A Quest for Quotes

There are still 13 teams headed towards the finish on the ever-changing Quest trail…a trail that is even more dynamic this year. Today, the Quest relocated the finish line due to unsafe conditions on the Chena River.

I’ve already written a lot about the camaraderie and the culture of the race, and I thought I might share some of my favorite quotes. These are things I overheard around the checkpoints, from handlers and officials, not so much from the mushers. But I thought they were amusing just the same, so here goes…

 “I have to seriously question the character of a guy that goes to a port-a-potty to pee when he’s on the Quest trail.” —A fellow handler, apropos of nothing

“Rental cars aren’t really supposed to be used to haul five dogs, three handlers, and two bales of straw.” — Fellow handler, after renting a car because of a problem with a dog truck

Court: “I’m not sure when I’m going to get another hot meal, so I ate a huge portion.” Amanda: “Ummm…I’m not really sure that the human body works that way, unless you plan to hibernate.” –At a restaurant in Dawson

Sorry, but this time of year, the air is all froze up.” –Manager at Pelly Crossing gas station, when we asked if they had a tire air pump

“Did I just singe my eyebrows?” –Quest checkpoint manager, after he accidentally torched his eyebrows over the fire barrel

“Wwwhooooaaa, Nooooo, Bourbon! NO! Bourbon just peed on your ruff.” –Amanda, to me, in Dawson

“Nobody else should attempt to drive across Eagle Summit tonight. Huge drifts. It’s dangerous.” –Mark Sass, to the Mile 101 checkpoint manager, just minutes before Amanda and I unwittingly drove across (successfully, thankfully!)

 “You missed a communal experience last night on Eagle Summit. We had six dog trucks stuck up there. But we had a bunch of beer, and the truck cab was warm, and the (northern) lights were out, so we enjoyed ourselves.” –Fellow handler in Circle, who had tried to cross a few hours behind us

 “No, no, that’s hot “dog water.” Not “hot dog” water. Although I do like hot dogs.” –Mile 101 checkpoint manager, explaining her signage

“The laws of physics cease to exist when you are trying to give a dog a pill.” –Nate, after watching Boomer spit out a supplement in Dawson

“You are headed to Circle, right? Do you mind bringing a cheeseburger to my friend Judy?” –Checkpoint volunteer in Central to a handler headed an hour up the trail to Circle City

“Look at all of these mushers shivering as they go out in in their full parkas. And Matt looks like he’s dressed for a snowball fight.” –Checkpoint manager along the trail, commenting on Matt’s tolerance for cold

 “So what do you think is better for your immune system, biting your nails or picking your nose?” –Quest handler, to one of the Vets, and I think it was a serious question

“If our plane had gone down and I had to eat one of the survivors? Well, she’s a vegetarian so she’d be last, maybe only a side dish.” –-From one of the many heady conversations at Two Rivers checkpoint

“You know about the Sour Toe shot, right? Well, there’s a new drink called a dog ball highball. It’s just what it sounds like.” –Quest Vet musing about the bar scene in Dawson

**

These are just the quotes that I remember–quotes from colorful people during a colorful experience!

 

 

 

Moving Communities

As we welcome in the teams still on the trail (and there are 16 more out there as I write this), there’s time to reflect on the Quest community. A lot has been written about the YQ community–and that’s understandable, as it is one of the more memorable things about a very memorable event.

As you probably know, handling on the Quest means you are hopscotching from checkpoint to checkpoint across hundreds of miles. Perhaps less obvious is that you are greeted by the same 30 people that you just left. It’s like bar-hopping and seeing the same faces every time you open the door (although bar hopping usually involves drinking beer, while handling involves raking straw, not quite the same).

This year, arriving at checkpoints offered opportunities to resume chats with Stephanie about hockey, with Katie about the book that she was reading, with Mark about horses, and with someone who I only know by face about her favorite cheesecake. Taken out of context, these conversations are unremarkable. But the kinship that the YQ community shares–across thousands of miles–is one of the many remarkable experiences on the Quest trail.

And it goes beyond just enjoying each other’s company. Jodi Bailey, who is writing the Armchair Musher column on the Quest site, wrote this about handlers working together:

Also seeing on the Alaska Traveler Info Website, that the Steese Highway is now closed. So until morning when plow trucks come and open Eagle Summit handlers are also camping out and waiting for a window of opportunity. The road closing is not a big deal, and can happen multiple times a winter. But during Quest it means handlers may end up at checkpoints longer than expected, or even miss their musher’s arrival while waiting for the highway to open. This is one of those times the traveling roadshow that is the Quest family really shines. Other team’s handlers take over to meet mushers, help clean, and do what needs to be done to keep teams supported. And at this point you have most likely been road tripping with the same group of dog trucks for long enough to have bonded over the unique experience of living in a dog truck, consuming way too much coffee, raking straw, which is handling for the Yukon Quest. So it is just natural you are going to look out for each other and help each other. Met some of my favorite people in the whole world thanks to this race. Great friendships get made on and behind the scenes on the Quest trail.

Here in Fairbanks, the finish line is another example of the YQ community. When Ryne Olson and team came in tonight in 11th place, she was greeted by a big crowd that included Brent Sass (this year’s champion), Allen Moore, Aliy Zirkle, and Matt.

The race is a competition, no doubt, but it’s also a moving community. Seeing the respect that mushers have for each other, seeing how much the dogs are respected and cared for, seeing and feeling the friendships among the handlers, and feeling the support of this community is pretty moving to me. And if the Quest trail has taught me anything, I know that I am not alone on that.

Crossing the Line!

It was an exciting finish for Matt and his team, as they managed to hold the seven minute lead on Paige Drobny for the closing 73 miles from Two Rivers, and even extend it a little bit. At times they were less than a mile apart, although the final margin was a little larger. To be so close after ten days and 1,000 trail miles is remarkable.

Aside from seeing Matt and his team cross the finish line in the top five, my favorite moment was seeing Matt and Paige share a hug at the finish. There aren’t many sports where competitors show that kind of respect. And there are even fewer sports where a crowd shows up after midnight to welcome the 5th and 6th place finishers. But such is the Quest.

Of course, there are still quite a few dog teams and competitors on the course, and all of them deserve our support. We’ll be back at the finish as much as is practical in the next days.

I’ll share a few more thoughts and observations about the race as I make my way home from Fairbanks. In the meantime, Matt is enjoying a much needed rest, as are the handlers!

The Home Stretch

The frontrunners are all in, with Brent Sass winning the 2019 Yukon Quest! Hans Gatt passed Allen Moore to take second, Allen took third, and Michelle Phillips took fourth. What’s left for Matt is a top five finish, and of course there are still quite a few mushers on the trail.

Last night, Matt went up and over Eagle Summit and then blew through Mile 101 checkpoint at around 1am, pushing on the 38 miles to Two Rivers checkpoint to start his mandatory 8-hour rest. By pushing through 101 without stopping, he put some distance between himself and Denis Tremblay. He also passed a resting Paige Drobny at 101—although Paige started her run to Two Rivers shortly after Matt went throgh and she and her team arrived in Two Rivers this morning only 8 minutes behind.

We made the drive over to Two Rivers through light snow, arriving around 5am, and saw Matt into the checkpoint and then this afternoon saw him out to the finish. Then we headed to Smokin’ Ace Kennels, where we offloaded a bunch of gear to ready the truck for Matt at the finish line.

Matt and team are currently running in 5th, just ahead of Paige (only about a mile separates them now). Their finish should be sometime after midnight, and we’ll be at the finish line with steaks for the dogs and lots of support for Matt.

I saw my friend Wes at the Two Rivers checkpoint, and last night I had a nice chat with a new friend from the Vet crew at Mile 101. It was also interesting to hear the banter between Matt and Paige this morning, two fierce competitors who are also friends. The handlers jokingly joined in with a competition around who could clean up after their musher faster. Something tells me that the competition on the trail between Matt and Paige will be fiercer and more meaningful (although I was pretty quick raking straw).

Out of Central

Matt and his team are out of Central at about 8:13pm, and Denis Tremblay followed about 20 minutes later. They are both bound for Eagle Summit and Rosebud, and then on to Mile 101 checkpoint. Matt lightened his load quite a bit, leaving his taildragger and a bunch of extra gear behind in prep for the climb.

We are hanging in Central for just a bit before heading over Eagle Summit ourselves (in the dog truck, on a road, not quite the same thing). We’ve had a nice rest here, and the place has a lot of personality.

We’ve also had the chance to catch up with Ryne Olson’s handlers as well as several other groups that have been in and out.

On to 101 for Matt…and for us!

Centrally Located

Matt and his team came into Central at 3:42pm after running the maze that is Birch Creek. Some mushers dread that section more than Eagle Summit, as it winds back and forth and conditions are often punchy with a lot of overflow (think wet/frozen boots and icey sled runners at 30 or 40 or 50 below).

A reporter asked Matt if he had any good memories of Birch Creek from past races and he responded “there’s no such thing as good memories on Birch Creek.” Previous teams reported that the trail was ok, but wet in places with overflow…and it’s still a slog.

Matt and his team will feed and rest in Central before heading for Eagle Summit and Rosebud, the biggest climbs of the trip.

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Matt on Eagle Summit last year. Photo courtesy of Yukon Quest.

They will then take another rest at Mile 101 checkpoint before beginning the stretch drive to Two Rivers and the Fairbanks finish.

2017 elevation map

Internet connectivity is pretty spotty from here on out, so will post when I can.