When I showcased my subpar dog handling skills in a race for the first time, it was the 2006
Yukon Quest. But I was no stranger to the Quest, because I had covered it five times before that as a reporter for the Yukon News.
I figured I knew a thing or two (or three, or four) about grumpy mushers. In 2004 and 2005 I went to Alaska as a summer handler for a couple of Iditarod and Quest veterans, before jetting off to frigid northern Finland for six months to strap tourists on dog sleds and whisk them into the wilds for days at a time.
After all that, handling for rookie quester Regina Wycoff, or Gina, who lived and trained in Healy, Alaska, should have been a breeze. Turns out, handling is a hoot, yes, but only after you forget about the exhaustion and the yelling, the driving and the panic.
It was a helluva year, 2006.
It was the year the storm on Eagle Summit prompted the U.S. military to send in giant helicopters to rescue several mushers and dog teams; it was the year the reroute of the trail sent mushers from Dawson, to Pelly, and back to the capital of the Klondike; and it was the year I learned to bury my ego. (Who are we kidding? My ego is alive and well. But being a handler is a lesson in humility to say the least.)
I thought for sure Gina was stuck up Eagle Summit in the storm. I was waiting in central, listening to updates and trying not to worry. I even laid down and tried to get some sleep. But then something amazing happened. Gina and her team came skidding into the checkpoint. Gina was smiling.
She loved it. She loved the storm, she loved helping other mushers, she loved being scared. She loved everything about it. My job as a handler then, I decided, was to praise her and let her recount the tale a couple times in the checkpoint after she had taken care of her dogs.
A couple times.
I practically had to pry the coffee out of her hand and yell in her face: “Go to bed. You have to sleep now. No more coffee. No more talkie.”
I’m surprised she didn’t punch me. Fast-forward to Dawson and the halfway point. I set up her camp like a good handler. I did it the way I had seen handlers do it in the past. Basically, I strung up a tarp and laid out straw. Gina pulled into Dawson and the hours of slugging coffee and talking nonstop at checkpoints had caught up with her. She was a little delusional. “Where are my cigarettes?” I was confused so I just stared at her. She couldn’t possibly be yelling at me. She was convinced that somewhere in the 250 road-less miles between Eagle and Dawson, I had snuck up on her and taken her ciggies. This continued until we found her smokes buried at the bottom of her sled bag. She didn’t even light one up, which I was somehow disappointed by, after all the yelling. In case you haven’t met Gina, she is tiny, but she is mighty. She’s a spitfire of an Alaskan dog musher who used to drive heavy equipment for DOT when she wasn’t running dogs. I liked her instantly. Meanwhile, in Dawson, extreme fatigue got the better of her and she soon passed out. I got to work, feeding and walking the dogs as much as they needed. I had never used a cooker before. And Gina, in her haste to make it to the start chute, didn’t really cut up the blocks of chicken parts that she would use to feed her team. So I wound up boiling huge chunks of chicken in her cooker pot, which is generally, strictly reserved for water. Then the boiling water is usually poured over small meat chunks and kibble in a cooler and dished out to hungry huskies accordingly. I messed it up royally until another handler came to my rescue. Also, in Dawson, I overslept one morning and in my rush to get to the dog yard to give the dogs another meal, I backed hard into another dog truck. I ripped the door off one of the dog boxes, but managed to jury-rig it back on with the help of yet another handler. Gina didn’t care about the damage to her truck, but I’m pretty sure she was still sleeping deeply when I told her. Fast-forward again to the end of the race and the makeshift finish line in Dawson. Gina was last that year, but only 11 mushers finished. It was hard year, maybe one of the hardest. But she did it, and boy, was she happy. I met her at the finish line with a hug, a coffee and, of course, some cigarettes.