As I stand behind the counter of the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre, I look at the eight people sitting in a semicircle around me. They have pens, notepads and wear expectant looks on their faces.
We are at the volunteer meeting for the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race and everyone is waiting for me, as checkpoint manager, to tell them what they are in for.
Of all the checkpoints in the race, Dawson City is the longest mandatory layover – 36 hours. The volunteers run the checkpoint and the vet shack. The empty room we are meeting in will become the information hub.
Anticipating the first musher into Dawson, the room will fill with close to 100 people, consisting of media, visitors, locals and volunteers.
At this meeting, two volunteers are veterans, the rest are brand new. All share the same level of excitement, including myself, though I have been involved for the last 13 years, first as a volunteer, then as a manager.
I hope they will be as moved as I always am to see the four-legged athletes come into Dawson after almost 500 miles of trail.
The checkpoint is open 24 hours for up to six days, depending on the speed of the race. The checkpoint volunteer’s job is to record a musher’s arrival time, check for mandatory gear, and time them out when they leave.
They also update and give out information of mushers’ movements and location on the way to Dawson.
In the past the arrival of a musher was a guessing game, but over the last couple of years the mushers have been wearing SPOTS, devices that pinpoint their location.
Very rarely are we now surprised to find a team standing outside in the middle of the night when no one had guessed that a team was nearby.
Checkers also taxi race officials and vets to and from the airport, and pick up incoming dogs. During the race some dogs get dropped at official points along the trail due to injury or tiredness. They are flown to the nearest airport, picked up and delivered to their handlers.
Several years ago, I went to pick up some dogs and was unprepared to find that my charges were in bags. Flying in a small plane can be disturbing to some dogs.
A pilot once had to contend with a dangerous situation as an out of control dog clawed up the interior of the plane while they were in the air.
To prevent this from happening, the dogs are put into cloth bags and then the bag is tied around the neck, leaving only the head free.
I burst into laughter when I saw several bagged dogs sitting in formation on the tarmac, looking very much like bowling pins – I had to resist the urge to go for a strike!
Anything can happen on a checkpoint shift. One year, I was on an overnight shift when a musher came in exhausted. I checked him in quickly and sent him on his way to the campground.
Twenty minutes later I got a frantic radio call from the campground to call the nursing station right away – the musher had picked up the wrong water bottle by the fire and had drunk campfire fuel instead.
Within the hour the musher was flown out. I heard later that he survived, but had severely burned his esophagus and wasn’t able to eat properly for six months. The saddest thing, however, was that this man was running the Quest for his daughter. She had waited until she was 18 to participate in her first Quest and was killed in a car accident just months beforehand.
Finally, in the vet shack, located in the Yukon River Campground, across the Yukon River, is where all the teams bed down for the layover. The veterinarians set up in a tarped cook shack so that they can be close to the dogs.
It is a much quieter shift for volunteers, only four hours, but some love it and return year after year to this location.
Dawsonite Brian Wilmshurst, who is running his first Quest this year, spent two races at the vet shack peppering the vets with questions about dog care in preparation for the race.
I wrap up the meeting by suggesting to the scribbling volunteers that they pick their shifts tonight rather than wait. I’ve had several emails from out-of-towners from as far away as New Zealand asking for shifts, and I will fill these in tomorrow.
As with every year, I’m happy that the volunteers, veterans and rookies alike, are so excited to help. That’s what keeps me coming back every year – the love of dogs, meeting old friends and making new ones, and knowing that we are all giving our time towards something bigger than ourselves.
It is a unique experience that binds us together, and I think by the end of this race, all the volunteers will know it too.