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Handling in The Yukon Quest

By Anne Tayler

The prospect of handling in the toughest race on earth, the Yukon Quest, may seem exotic, romantic, thrilling, or just plain crazy. It can be all of these things, but it can also involve a lot of work, long hours, no pay, chaos, uncertainty, and disappointment. Nevertheless, if you have the chance, you should jump at it.

First, whether you volunteer for the race or a team, there are several criteria you will need to meet. You need to have a valid driver's license and a valid passport, along with clearance to cross the border (no criminal record, for example). You also need the ability to handle stress, chaos, emergencies, and -- most of all -- sleep deprivation. Team handlers for the Yukon Quest especially need to be able to cope with severe sleep deprivation, as they have to travel the entire race route (Whitehorse to Dawson, back to Whitehorse, to Fairbanks, to Circle, back to Fairbanks, to Angel Creek, to Fairbanks).

For any race handling, you need to have good winter clothing and a sleeping bag for the brief moments when you can curl up in a corner, or in the dog truck. You should also take with you nutritional supplements - while cheeseburgers may be the best taste option on the restaurant menus, they aren't necessarily the best nutritional choice for 10 days straight. So pack some power bars and power drinks to keep your energy up (also good vitamins). Some folks like to take along Echinacea, to help defend against colds. Whatever your preferences, pack light, pack carefully and pack simply - you need to be able to find things very quickly, usually in the dark.

And if you will be in one of the many infamous dog trucks on the highway, take a road safety kit with you, along with two spare tires. Crews can encounter almost anything on the long route to the checkpoints - whiteout and blizzard conditions, rampaging moose, flat tires, careening media vans, knee-deep overflow, and dangerously high winds at Eagle Summit (and yes, the trucks drive over the same summit that the mushers sled over). So be prepared for any road hazard.

Race Handler
If you hope to be a race volunteer, you should contact the organization and let them know what kind of help you would like to provide. It's helpful if you can let them know your skill base and identify tasks that you like to do. Of course, it helps if you like cold, dirty work, in remote, isolated settings. They will probably assign you to one of the checkpoints or dog drops, or to the start or the finish. Checkpoints near the start of the race will operate for two or three days. After the mid-point, they will need to stay open 4 or 5 days as the teams are further spread out. The jobs range from Checkers to spotters, to telephone support crews for race updates, or just checkpoint assistants helping to haul musher bags.

Team Handler
Most mushers will be listed on the race web site once they are officially entered, so you can reach them directly or indirectly that way. Visiting mushers (from Europe or far away) often do not have a lot of local support, so they could really use some help. The other teams that need help will be mushers with smaller kennels and Rookies (unless they are famous Quest Rookies, like Doug Swingley).

If you want to handle for a specific team, ideally you should meet the musher and the team before the race. It is especially helpful to know the dogs a bit, as you will likely have to take care of one or more on the road - not to mention the fact that you will provide complete care for all of them in Dawson. So plan to meet up with your team a few days before the race start.

Make sure you attend the Handlers' Meeting prior to the Race Start. The officials will tell you that you "cannot do ANYTHING." The main rule for handlers is: no outside assistance. So crews are only allowed to watch and encourage from the sidelines. Recently officials have even gotten very fussy and strict about how close the crews can get to teams in the checkpoints. Indeed, the race has a long list of rules which you should be familiar with. It will be particularly important to be aware of the list of banned substances and rules about dropped dogs.

While you cannot DO anything for your team, you can and must BE there for them. In essence, your job will be to travel to each checkpoint and greet your musher with smiles and encouragement. In fulfilling this rule, there are three critical rules:

1. Always get there BEFORE your musher.
2. Never, ever let the dogs SEE the dog truck until the END of the race.
3. Never break any of the race rules.

If you break these rules, especially #2 or #3, you can expect to be unceremoniously and immediately fired. For the novice, an explanation may be needed. If the dogs see the truck, they will know the race is over for them (it's their visual cue that it's time to go home and curl up in their houses). If you, as a handler, break a race rule, your musher will have to pay the penalty on your behalf - and while some penalties involve dollars, many penalties involve time. An 8-hour penalty for a team can cost them a position, or more.

Each musher will have a set of expectations and a long list of Do-s and Don'ts. The list may not be written down, but it will be as fixed and important as the Ten Commandments for that team. You will need to follow your musher's instructions to the letter. Try not to carry with you the "baggage" of what other mushers do with their teams.... This is not the time to debate dog care or introduce "new" meds or treatments. Once the race starts, be very careful not to argue with your musher (especially when they are tired). All of which is to say, you have to be prepared to follow instructions, even when they don't make sense to you, or when they seem to contradict the practices you've learned elsewhere. The first task, always, is to find out what your musher wants from you in every respect - the more detail the better.

Some teams will have notes for handlers, perhaps even a handbook, but most will just play it by ear. So you should take lots of notes in the days leading up to the race, to document the expectations of your musher, so that you understand your team and your role. Also take lots of notes at each checkpoint, when your musher rambles on about their run so far, and mutters about how the dogs have been doing. Those notes will be helpful in Dawson when you finally get to care for the dogs.

If you want to prepare for the road trip, and get an understanding of the race route, you should take a look a topo maps and the Quest route. Understanding the route will help you to estimate your musher's travel time, and help you prepare for dog care in Dawson, for example. If your musher has entered the race before, try to find out how they ran each leg of the race. Compare their times and strategy to those of other mushers. Also find out who they like to travel with, if anyone. All this information will help you estimate your team's ETA at each point.

At the start, you will help to make sure your musher gets out of the gate cleanly -- and with all his supplies, etc. packed well. The start is very exciting and working behind the line is especially exciting. At this point, the musher will bark orders and you just obey. The musher will have a particular plan for harnessing and booting their team, and you need to be able to respond quickly to the musher's directions. You can take pictures before you hook up the team, but once you hear the order to put dogs on the line, give the camera to someone else. You are about to become a human anchor.

When 14 Quest dogs are all on the line, it takes at least 14 people to hold the team and sled back - and that's with two or three people on the runners and an extra person on top of the loaded sled! Those dogs will be eager to get going, and they are amazingly powerful. The start of the race, and the first 100 miles, represent the highest risk for a team. With the dogs so full of energy, amidst the excitement of the start, they are at greater risk of injury. It will be your job to help calm them down until they are released from the chute.

Once the race starts, your best resource will be other handlers, as you will all spend a lot of time hurrying up and waiting-waiting-waiting. You will need to rest whenever you get a chance - twenty minutes power napping is worth far more than 3 hours of pacing. Likewise, jump in the shower when you get the chance. The one time you skip the chance to sleep or shower, will turn out to be the one time when you end up unable to do either for 48 hours. You don't need to "spot" for your team all the time. After a while, you will recognize the alarm, "TEAM", even if you cannot hear the words. You will sense pending arrivals by the way people in the next room start to shuffle around and reach for parkas. And, trust me on this, if you have been waiting several hours longer than expected for your musher, and finally decide to go to the bathroom (on a forty-below night, with all the clothing that entails), you will hear the haunting cry of "TEAM" just as you get your pants down… and this time it will indeed be your team.

Handlers are generous to one another with advice and support, so don't be afraid to ask. Every year, there are innumerable instances of one crew helping another - in everything from auto mechanics to Internet connections to dog food to specialized care of an injury. While the race itself is competitive, the actual care of dogs is not. Everyone is committed to providing good dog care, regardless of what team a dog may be on.

While you cannot help the dogs or the musher at checkpoints, you will be required to clean up your team's campsite. That involves a lot of raking of straw, bagging straw, scooping poop, and collecting unused/unwanted supplies left by your team. The site must be clean or your musher will be penalized. Handlers often help other teams who have no handler (or teams whose handler is stranded somewhere, since the highway is notoriously hard on vehicles). At every checkpoint, handlers need to be prepared to accept a dropped dog - a dog that can no longer remain in the team, usually due to an injury or illness. The vets provide absolutely wonderful assistance to handlers in this situation.

Unfortunately, handlers also should be prepared for their team to scratch. Every year, about one-third of the teams scratch - it is a very, very tough race. In this event, you will need to be very supportive of your musher - the decision to scratch is always really difficult and painful, and they will need reassurance that they have made the right decision. Mushers are often despondent after scratching, and may berate themselves for some perceived weakness or an imagined miss-step. You will need to listen, and sympathize, and encourage. This is a good time to avoid "what-ifs."

One other task a handler may have is to "Phone home!" If your musher has a spouse or other family back at home base, they will likely be doing all the dirty work during the race. They will also be waiting for news. It will be your job to call home as often as possible to let the home front know how things are going. If you don't call, people will worry needlessly. It is important to remember that the radio and newspapers do not cover all the teams, so your team's family may be completely in the dark about their progress unless you call home.

Dawson is the only point during the race where you get to be anything more than a cheerleader and straw-sweeper. There you can choose a site, set camp, and take complete care of all the dogs. You have 36 hours to bring your team back up to as high a level as possible - with rest and hydration and nutrition (and, yes, in that order). You also have to make sure the musher's gear - from the sled to the harnesses to the booties to the food - is all ready to go for the second half of the race. You need to tackle all this in a low-key manner, so that your musher feels confident and reassured, which will enable them to get some much-needed rest. It's a very critical and intensive 36 hours.

At the Finish Line, you will again get to care for the dogs. You have to get everything packed away, as your musher will be beyond exhausted, and get your team to whatever billet or accommodations you have. There are strict rules about the finish line, so you have to wait until you get the cue to work on the dogs. Also, the vets will need to take urine samples, so you cannot put the dogs away too quickly. You will likely want to have treats and snacks ready for the dogs, but don't over feed them. You may also need to run interference on the press and race fans, since too many flash bulbs and too many people may be a bit much for a tired team to handle.

Before your musher passes out from exhaustion, you want to get a list of all the dog care items to tend too -- sore shoulders, sore wrists, sore feet, collar rubs, harness rubs, stress diarrhea, etc. etc. You also need to get information on the Mushers Meeting and the Finish Banquet (so you know when to wake up your musher).

It's a wonderfully wild experience, and you will go home with dozens of wonderful stories to tell. With the crews crammed into tiny quarters at each checkpoint, cheek-by-jowl with media, officials, fans, vets, vet techs, checkers, checkpoint volunteers, etc., LOTS happens; and you'll hear many tales of adventure and silliness. Volunteers in each community are amazing - kind, generous and seemingly tireless. The trailbreakers are awesome. The ham radio guys are terrific. And there are fans from all over the world trying to get a taste of this great race. Quite simply, there's no other experience like it.

Anne Tayler
Muktuk Kennels
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
Quest handler for 9 years, good runs and difficult ones...

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