I lay curled in my -60 sleeping bag in the front seat of the truck, the clouds a patchwork gossamer skein to the moonlight filtering down. Outside, the sounds of dog teams in the varying stages of entrance or exit--the clank of cooker lids, barking leaders harness-banging to go, quiet words exchanged between mushers & handlers. I closed my eyes, for the second time in two days, & where I thought to dream instead I saw Kristin & the team barreling into the checkpoint, that wonderful broad smile on her face, the lolling tongues of the dogs. Where I wanted to feel my exhaustion spread through me & overtake me, instead my pride thrilled & thrummed in me & kept me awake. My family out there on the trail, plugging along, doing such a beautiful job.
Handling under any circumstance is a difficult but extraordinarily educational task, especially for an aspiring musher. Handlers can observe checkpoint routines, look over dog teams, talk shop with mushers, interact with the incredibly generous volunteer veterinarian team, & forge friendships all the while, winding down the road. & I do mean down the road-- the Copper Basin 300 requires, in addition to the usual tasks, a great deal of driving. All told, the truck tallied just shy of 1200 miles for this trip.
A handler’s workload includes greeting the team at every checkpoint, assisting the team in reaching their parking spot, helping tend to any dropped dogs, assisting the team in leaving, & then cleaning up the straw & the leftover supplies when the team is back on the trail. Once the spot is clean, you pack up & drive to the next checkpoint to repeat the process.
Other than pulling on the leader line or occasionally swinging wide the gangline, a handler doesn’t get to interact with the dogs. This means that you stand with arms folded next to twelve of your absolute best friends & look them in the eye & see that imploring recognition, & you simply have to shrug & turn away. This alone could kill a man. At least I had the dropped dogs to join me, each stretching out in turn in the cab of the truck, each getting tended to with massage, food, fluids, whatever they wanted.
That’s the gist of what a handler does, but what a handler feels is something else entire. I cannot begin to describe the pride I felt seeing my wife & our dogs come loping into the finish. I love each of them with everything I have to give, & to see those smiles, that sense of accomplishment, was nothing short of extraordinary. I have known for some time that our dogs were born to run, & I have long suspected that my wife, too, is certainly most in her element when her feet are on the runners. I can now tell you unequivocally, upon seeing her cross that finish line, that she was born to mush, plain & simple. I am proud beyond words. My heart over-brimmed there, watching them roll in, & over-brims still in recollection.
This was our first race with our own dogs, with our own kennel & under our own guidance. Everything that we have done to make this possible culminated in that beautiful smile on Kristin’s face at the finish line. & along the way, I thought about those details ancillary to the race—pallets of kibble, booties in bundles, meat snacks, posts & swivels, & on & on & on. I thought about the incredible generosity of our dog sponsors, our friends, our families, our mentors & our community. People, some of them complete strangers, who contribute to this wild dream of ours from landlocked states & Southern towns & office cubicles. I thought about the fact that our dogs are well-cared for in every circumstance largely because that generosity affords us the tools we need for that care. No team crosses that finish line alone, & wrapped up in every footfall of every dog is this shared, collective enthusiasm & love for the sport that you all encourage & support in us, a live filament buzzing in our hearts. & so whatever our joy & pride in completing this race with happy, healthy dogs, I hope you know we share it with all of you who have helped us get here in the first place. It’s a stunning, heart-stopping feeling to see your dream manifest, & it spurs a gratitude the depths of which I’ve never known. We can & will say thank you over & again, but a capable, healthy dog charging through a finish line after 300 miles says it best. From Norton, Kabob, Littlehead, Solo, Bullock, T-Bone, Andy-dog, Ox, Zigzag, Hoss, Doug & Shane (our CB300 team), thank you.