Quest, Dogsledding, Musher race history, Dog Sled Race
READER please note: This is a first hand acount of my 2005 Yukon Quest. I've done it while my memories were still fresh. I could have gone more into detail, but barely had enough time to put down what you see. There was no editing or proof reading. This text is as raw as the race itself.
Continued from the March 25 newsletter.
The Pelly checkpoint is a fairly new institution in the Quest, as this community did not become part of the race until 1996 or 97. This year it boasted a brand new huge recreational centre with big kitchen, lounge area, internet access, and a back room for sleeping. I was still not tired enough to catch a good nap, and was just day dreaming on one of the gym matts. Because the heating system in the new building just failed it was a bit cool, but volunteers gathered a bunch of electric heaters, and we rigged up a drying rack for our clothes powered by a million watts in a janitors room.
While 6 hours of rest would have given me enough down time for a 50/50 run-rest schedule William and I agreed to give our dogs eight hours. It was still very early in the race, and we wanted to allow them to fully recoup. My big wheel dog Mohammed had a sore wrist, likely from the run in the ditch in the soft trail. I massaged the joint with Algyval and put a wrist wrap on it. I definetly wanted to keep him in the team because losing Mohammed means losing 100 horse power. He ended up finishing this his second Quest flawlessly.
Jon Little left the checkpoint first around 4:30 PM, then followed Lance, Hugh, Dave and Sam Perrino within the hour. William and I followed just before 6 PM. We were hoping for a fast run with fresh teams down the Pelly River, going through Stepping Stone and up the Scroggie Creek Road a bit, before taking a break around midnight. We were in for a surprise.
It turned out the trail on the river had been put in just a week before the race, which was too late to allow for it to set up in the warm weather we had. We marched through soft sugar snow. Our sleds were loaded with four feedings for the 200 mile haul over to Dawson, the longest leg between checkpoints in the Quest, or probably any race for that matter. The sleds kept falling off the trail into the 4 foot deep snow, and I had to litterally dig mine out more than once to allow the dogs to pull it back on the trail. It felt more like having a bunch of egyptian slaves marching through soft sand pulling one of those big rocks for the pyramids than driving a dog team. William and I left a lot of German curse words on the trail that night, and they probably still echo from the Pelly Canyon walls.
We passed Pelly Farms at 10:30 PM and the run shaped up to be 5 hours only to Stepping Stone which is three miles downstream from the farm. We rolled in there at 11 PM, blinded by countless reflective signs advertising lasagna and burritos, free dog parking, hot water and cabins. Stepping Stone is hard to pass by due to its exceptional hospitality. We changed plans here and rested for 5 hours, figuring the 5 hour run from Pelly had taken enough out of our teams for that evening. 5 hours for 35 miles at this early stage of the race, oh boy.
We saw a couple of teams leave just as we pulled in, it must have been Lance and Hugh. We had passed Sam just outside of Pelly as he was crawling down the trail, and never saw him again. An hour into our rest Ed "Fast Eddie" Hopkins rolled in, making the run from McCabe to here in one shot, hoping to catch up with the front runners. We enjoyed burritos, juice, candy bars, and pie, and got to sleep a couple of hours in the back room in BEDS! John Schandelmeier and Sebastian Schnuelle were dining when we got up at 3, and by 4 AM we started the morning shift on the trail. Ed followed us briefly, which means he only rested 4 hours after a tough 9 hour run. He had to load a dog, and was out of sight behind us immediatelly.
From Stepping Stone the trail doubles back to Pelly Farms and then takes the Scroggie Creek Road over to Scroogie Creek dog drop at the Stewart River. This is a long 70 miles, and we had adjusted our plans to rest about 3 to 4 hours before Scroggie. Right from the farm the trail climbs for about two hours. It was quite emotional to see my dogs charging up the hill in a loap. I had to slow them down, fearing they would burn out.
At 5:30 PM I got a wiff of wood smoke in my nose, and the dogs' ears perked up. Undoubtely "the others" were camped not too far ahead. Five minues later we loaped by Lance, Hugh and Dave who were resting and sitting around a campfire. Jon was nowhere to be seen, his schedule must have been similar to ours, but have him an hour or so up the trail. Towards the end of the climb my dogs became increasingly distracted by William's team behind us and we traded lead. Then we charged up the hills. Having another team ahead of you is a great motivator for the dogs. At 8:45, just before sunrise, we slid over the divide between Jane Creek and Valhalla Creek and began the long steady downhill on the Scroggie Creek Road. It got warm quickly, and we pulled over at 10:30 for a 6 hour rest.
Lance came bouncing down the road an hour into our rest, sitting on the seat of his sled, legs stretched out on either side of the sled. He wore his shades against the bright sun and had a big grin on his face. He looked like a biker riding a chopper when he stopped next to us for a quick chat. I guess he was practising his grin for the finish line, which he would cross over a week later as the 2005 Yukon Quest Champion. When he rode off his sled bounced over a bump and almost catapulted him from his seat straight into orbit. It was quite comical. Hugh came by within a few minutes and his dogs dove right into the food bowls of my team. I pulled them back on the trail and they dove right back into my dogs food. I jerked them over with a few harsh words, and Hugh managed to get them by. This dialogue followed: Hugh: "Did you see my leader, really good, just bought him from Lance a few weeks ago." Gerry: "Doesn't look like a leader to me." Hugh: "Jerk!" And he was off. Not that I took it too seriously, I've known Hugh for a long time, and a few spiced up words reminded me that we were racing against each other and not on a camping trip. Dave came by, and his leaders did not run by my team either. It seemed that William and I had a bit of an edge compared to those two, at least discipline-wise.
Lunch-break on the Scroggie Creek Road
We pulled the hook at 4 PM, it was still sunny and quite warm. A little later we came by Jon's camp spot, he must have been an hour ahead but basically running the same schedule. Maybe he was a bit slower and cutting rest. Just before 7 I came upon a sharp 90 degree turn, we ran by the sleeping teams of the "other three", and dropped down steep onto the Stewart River. This was Scroggie Creek dog drop, visible only to the experienced eye, but not to the eyes of Jon Little. I met him camped a good hour up the trail, and he looked a bit lost when I stopped next to him. Had we gone by Scroggie, he asked. Yes we had, and he had a dog he needed to either drop or load, so he contemplated to go back and drop the dog. There were some good climbs coming up, the famous switch-backs in the Black Hills and King Solomons Dome, the highest point on the trail. He was between a rock and a hard place. I suggested to keep going, maybe he could massage the dog back into shape so that it could pull up the hill. I never found out how Jon got his dog across the hills, but he decided against going back. Turning back a team is rarely a smart move, I think. I took off, recapturing the lead during our week-long leap-frog exercise.
William was about 15 minutes behind, as he dropped his priced leader Dogmatic in Scroggie. It was a tough decision to make, but had to be done. The trail from Scroggie on was absolutely excellent, thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Ranger's Dawson Section. Hard and fast. We were moving well, even on the steep uphills. The moon lit up the night, and I ran with the headlamp off. As time came around to camp I headed down a short descent, and the trail led across a 70 foot wide "glacier". These glaciers can be quite common where creeks cross roads and frozen or non-existent culverts force the water to run onto the road. Depending on the weather these glaciers are either frozen solid or a bit wet at the top. This one was half and half, and I tried to "gee" my leaders Jack and Blaze over to the right, to the upper and more level part of the glacier. Unfortunatelly it was wet there and the dogs shyed back, trying to get by on the steeper left side. The front half of my team ended up in a pile on the downhill side. I was lucky enough that I could anchor down my sled on the trail, pulled my dogs back onto the snow, and started untangling the mess. This is one "joy" of being in the lead. Had there been a sled track across the ice the dogs would likely have followed.
A headlamp appeared at the top of the hill, and I signaled William to stop. I took his leaders and walked them across the ice, while he rode the "drag", a studded piece of skidoo-track which serves as a second brake on the sled, across the frozen creek. The he anchored down his team, we inched our way back to my dogs who seemed to be content sitting in a tangled mess around the sled. I undid most tuglines, and we managed to find and straighten the gangline. Then William, who broke his leg in the Quest last year going across a similar glacier, took my leaders and walked them across, and all the dogs followed willingly. There was a good campspot on the other side and we settled in for the night.
Takotna, one of the 5 two-year-olds in my team had shown a gait that was a bit "off" for the last 20 minutes. She was loaping more than she should have. And sure enough, when taking off the booties she squeaked. "Ropy" muscles in her shoulder indicated an injury, and I began treating it right away with massage, hot-cold packs and shoulder jacket. Damn, I was hoping I would not have to join Jon in his misery and pack her over the switch-backs and the dome.
The night was clear and temperatures dropped, and I crawled in my sleeping bag as soon as I could. This turned out to be a mistake, because I had skipped dinner and did not have the calories in me to keep my body warm. I was tossing and turning (and shivering) in my bag. Jon, Lance, Hugh, and Dave came by, and finally I got up to collect fire wood. It was not easy to gather up a few sticks because we were against a high cutbank, and the snow was deep. But finally I had a good fire going, and ate everything I could find. Sebastian came by. Where the hell did he come from I wondered, I had forgotten all about him. He would have to rest further up the trail though, and we had the chance of going through to Dawson from here. I was feeling better and by 4 AM we started the morning shift on the trail.
I loaded Takotna, and the whole show slowed down to a crawl, because the switchbacks started immediatelly after our camp. As she did not show any more signs of pain I decided to put her back in the team. She pulled as hard as ever and even though she limped for about 30 seconds she then settled into into a normal trott. On the downhills she loaped and looked fine. I considered myself lucky because loading a dog is not really "fun". We passed Sebastian camped next to the trail at the top of Eureka dome, after the switchbacks, and then started the long downhill to Eureka Creek. I worked in a mining camp located at this creek back in 1997, and had been over this "hill" numerous times in Bombadier mounted auger drills and semi-trucks. It almost felt like coming home.
Two sleds were parked just past Eureka Creek, Dave and either Lance or Hugh, I couldn't quite make out which one. It turned out to be Lance. Hugh had continued on into Dawson to get the 4 ounces of gold, which are awarded to the first musher into "Dodge City" who continues to finish the race. Just past the Indian River which must have been Jon's. He had camped at a spot where my dog truck with all my possessions on board (everything from my birth certificate to 20 dogs) had caught on fire in 1997 while moving to the mine. I managed to get the fire under control, miracuously lost nothing and gained a life-long memory of the Indian River. I figured Jon could only have stayed there for about three hours. I turned out he was somewhere between 1/2 and 1 hour ahead of us. What makes this kind of racing really exciting is the feeling of solitude you get out on the trail, because you don't see another musher for hours. But often the competition is only a mile or two ahead or behind, and the mushers don't find out until they reach the next checkpoint.
We passed Granville and were slowly closing in on King Solomon's Dome. It was daylight now. Just before the climb up to the dome is the old mining community of Sulphur. It was here in 1995 that I saw my first racing team in the kennel of sprint musher Marc Pearson. Marc operates a gold mine here and has his doors open for the mushers. William and I were tempted to stop a couple hours for coffee but the sun threatened to come over the hills and heat up the day pretty quick, so we made the climb while it was still cool. 1 1/2 hours later we were at the highest point of the entire Quest trail, overlooking endless rolling hills to the south and the Ogilvie Mountains in the North. The trail rides on top of the mountain for about 1/2 hour, then begins the 2 hour descent down Upper Bonanza Creek into the heart of the Klondike Goldfields. We stopped several times to give our dogs short breaks. It had been hot up top and cooled down quite a bit as we came to the valley floor. For the last hour we ran down Bonanza Creek road, and were greeted by several camera teams on skidoos and spectators in rental cars. After 10 hours running time we approached the Klondike River, which joins the Yukon right in front of Dawson. The trail led up the dike in front of town, followed the crown of the dike past the restaurant which I had operated for two years in 1996-97 and then spilled out onto Front Street. People were running, gravel dragged underneath the runners, I stepped on the brake and here we were. Dawson City checkpoint at 2:20 PM, in 3rd and 4th position. Volunteers checked my mandatory gear - axe, snowshoes, sleeping bag, vet book and promo items. Leslie, Pierre and Isabelle, my handlers for the 36 hour layover had waited for me. Race judge Curtis Erhart explained the way over to the campground, which was no news for me as I had handled for William in four Quests between 98 and 2002. I gee and hawed the team across the ice bridge and pulled into the campspot my handlers had prepared.
Within the first hour I had the mandatory vet check done, all 13 dogs looked good. Mohammed still had an issue with his wrist, but I had been on top of things and kept massaging it throughout the race. It did not seem to bother him. Takotna's sore shoulder had completely disappeared, neither the vet or Leslie, who as massage therapist is an expert in muscle injuries, could find any signs of strained or inflamed tissue. It seems like my treatment had worked. I kept running Taktona for another 450 miles to 101 dog drop in Alaska, where I dropped her because she wasn't pulling as hard any more. The soft trail conditions in Alaska seemed to be a bit much for her. But here she was a-ok.
We bedded all the dogs down on lots of straw under a tarp, to shelter them from wind and cold. Heated or completely enclosed shelters are not allowed for the dogs. Leslie and Isabelle, who works as vet assistant in a Whitheorse vet clinic, checked them thoroughly and applied massages. After an hour we fed them and then let them rest. Over the course of the 36 hours in Dawson we fed 4 times, walked and massaged them, and got all 13 back on the trail in tip-top shape.
To be continued in the next newsletter...