I haven’t seen a Yukon Quest or Arctic Ultra race start in seven years now because, along with my husband Mike, I’m usually deep in the wilderness at a remote checkpoint.
We initially honed our skills with the Arctic Ultra race at a wall tent camp at Dog Grave Lake, 40 miles south of Braeburn, on the Trans Canada Trail. Then we graduated to the cabin built by William Kleedehn for the Yukon Quest at Scroggie Creek, 100 miles south of Dawson.
But whether in a wall tent or the Chateau Kleedehn, the procedure is the same.
To create a sense of calm order, there’s a flurry of activity the day before the race. At first light we snowmobile in with skimmers packed tight with wall tents, airtight stoves, a chainsaw, ice auger and fuel, athlete food, a full camp kitchen, bedding, lighting and a few sticks of furniture.
On arrival, our first order of business is for one of us to fall and haul in a cord of firewood, while the other sets up the camp and fires up the airtight.
Next, we bore a hole in the ice with an auger for the six to ten litres of water each team will need over the next three to five days.
That done, the trail is left to firm up, the race vet and official are flown in and the dog yard is cleared before we fall into our bunks for the last “real” sleep of the week.
Smooth operation comes from good organization and directly affects how quickly a musher can sack out. The mushers bed down their dogs first, while the race vet and official check the team and gear.
Long-time musher Sebastian Schnuelle, of Whitehorse, has the reputation of being the most efficient. He was once clocked at taking only four minutes to spread the straw beds, get the dogs’ booties off and warm-up jackets on, and have them muzzles-down in full food dishes.
A minute later the musher is in the kitchen with their clothes hung to dry, spooning down the food and drink that we’ve prepared. They’ll sleep with one eye and both ears open, alert to the sounds of surreptitious packing by a competitor breaking camp early.
Otherwise, we wake them at the time they’ve requested. Once the dogs are bootied and hitched up, the musher calls “hike!” and rockets down the trail, never to be seen again.
It’s our job to rake up the straw and ensure the canines in camp are warm, comfortable and walked regularly. This is not a problem when the teams are spaced apart, but with multiple teams coming and going, it’s like working the lunch counter at the most popular restaurant in town.
Mushers can drop a sick or flagging dog at Scroggie, but it’s an expensive proposition because they’ll have to be flown out at the musher’s expense. We stake dropped dogs in a separate yard, away from the team.
A lull gives us a chance to phone in the times to race central, but the mechanical buzz of a tiny red bush plane is our cue to sprint to the dog yard and walk the “passengers” to the “tarmac”, a packed strip of snow on the Stewart River.
The pilot touches down and hands out sacks resembling big striped seed bags with drawstring closures. Each dog is “bagged” with the drawstring drawn snug around its neck so it can’t squirm out in transit. The dogs are packed like mail in the cargo hold for the short flight out.
This year we expect 25 teams, a couple more than last year. Unlike 2010, though, the teams won’t be in the “home stretch” mentality, but on the push to win an ounce of gold and a 36-hour layover in Dawson.
How does that change the dynamic of their time in camp? We’ll only know after they’re all gone.
When the last musher leaves, we’ll spend a day cleaning up, then light a bonfire of dog straw and droppings.
Next day, we start all over with the 21 Arctic Ultra athletes destined for Dawson on the trail of the toughest race on earth.
The Yukon Quest, the annual 1,000-mile international sled dog race, starts Saturday February 5, at 11 am from downtown Whitehorse at Shipyards Park. The closing banquet will be on February 18 in Fairbanks.