From handler to racer

After almost a decade of being a Yukon Quest handler, partner, sponsor, and anything else required, Tamra Reynolds is embarking on her very own Yukon Quest.

Her journey to the Quest start-line started in 2003. While living in Vancouver, Reynolds ventured up the Dalton Highway in Alaska to the Arctic Circle.

On that trip, she met a tire mechanic named Hugh Neff (now known for having many Quest and Iditarod races under his belt, including a win in the 2012 Yukon Quest).

Neff explained to her that she couldn’t get a feel for the Alaska in the summer, so Reynolds returned a few months later, in winter.

Neff showed her his world of rustic living and dogs aplenty by playing host on her second trip to Alaska. She was introduced to the world of dog sledding and was instantly hooked.

Well, perhaps “instantly” is an exaggeration.

The plan was to travel via dogsled from Nenana to Tanana, Alaska. They were told by locals the trail was in, but halfway into the journey the trail completely disappeared.

If Reynolds was going to experience winter in Alaska, she was doing it right, and getting all Mother Nature had to offer.

Temperatures then dropped to -50°C. The normally six hour trip turned into a 16 hour run. The Vancouverite hadn’t signed up for a hardcore adventure, but, using a skill that will no doubt help her on her first Quest, she rolled with the punches.

She explains the trail conditions.

“The trail was so bad, the dogs were starting to follow moose tracks” she laughs, recalling the intense and eye opening experience.

“I just had Sorels, having no clue about proper warm gear. We weren’t expecting to stop so had to camp under a tarp. It was a crazy trip.”

Reynolds admits that it took a bit of time for her to get back on the sled.

However, it didn’t deter her for long. She soon partnered up with Neff. Their kennel grew and the focus was on Neff’s racing. She handled for him until they parted ways in 2011.

After the split, Neff took the race dogs with him while Reynolds kept some puppies, older dogs and some dogs that they thought would work better with her. She then embarked on this new direction, that of starting her own racing career.

That also means being the sole caretaker and trainer of the 40-plus dogs. She was able to get a handler to help train the dogs, and that makes it a bit easier.

Though there isn’t much extra time in her life these days. Working full time and training dogs for a 1,000 mile race is a big chore that many mushers take on.

When asked why she didn’t race before she and Neff parted ways, she explains, “I never really thought about racing before this. I was just so busy working and helping him… with both the Quest and Iditarod, it was just so much work.”

What is it going to be like making the transition from hardcore handler to musher? Will she have an advantage over other rookies because she knows some of the trail and checkpoints?

Reynolds laughs.

“No, and even if I did, I don’t think anyone would be interested in my rookie race strategy.”

She points out that not only are there other very capable rookies (an Iditarodexperienced one in particular with the surname Reddington, an Alaskan family who is synonymous with the Iditarod).

Her goal? It’s to finish.

“And to finish with happy, healthy dogs, So I’m not setting myself up for speed records or anything” she laughs.

Some might wonder what allure racing and running long distances through the cold holds. Reynolds talks about a memorable run Alaska during the Gin Gin 200 race this year. She was on the Denali highway, in a valley with mountain ranges on both sides. A full moon engulfed the wide open sky, reflecting off the snow and mountains.

On top of that special moment, for 10 hours, purple, red, and green northern lights swirled and spiraled overhead in all directions.

“Every five minutes there was a shooting star because there was a meteor shower going on at the same time, she recalls. “No one ran with a head lamp, it was so bright out. So yeah that was pretty cool.”

Reynolds and all the other mushers start the 2015 Yukon Quest in downtown Whitehorse at 11:00 am on Saturday February 7th . 

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