Yukon Quest 300

Start I can’t attempt to recall beginning this race without first recollecting the generosity of so many along the way, from friends & family to dog sponsors, from mentors to volunteers, veterinarians to trailbreakers to officials. This is a sport that depends entirely on the selfless, passionate investment of everyone involved, & the Yukon Quest in particular fosters such a sense of community & family that it overwhelms. The physical act of reaching the starting line in downtown Fairbanks alone required use of J.J.’s snowmachine, Jamie’s driveway, Anna & Josh’s front yard, Michael’s enduring work as a handler, Schiro’s support &, of course, Kristin’s constant companionship, help & positivity. All of that & I haven’t even mentioned the dogs yet.

Start-First Camp

After so much preparation, the actual circus of the starting line was the final bit of pomp & circumstance to wrap up before I could finally commit to my time on the trail with my dogs. Healy acquitted itself well, as friends & neighbors & co-workers all showed up to offer their support & encouragement. I was reminded, then & again, that we don’t run these races alone, & that at every milepost along the way, we continue to have that same support.

Once the countdown hit zero, Solo & Kabob pushed into their harnesses & we were off, doglegging down to the Chena & starting along on our river miles. As houses turned to cabins & cabins turned into remote hunting shacks, groups of onlookers stood around bonfires cheering on teams as they passed. Signs stood near bridges, spraypainted letters rooting for Wild & Free, for Team Squid (& clearly, I raised a fist & cheered for both). The trail was hard & fast with some icy grooves & sections of glare ice, but for the most part, without any particular challenge.

A hard left off the Chena put us on track to Two Rivers, winding through tight forested trail, in a labyrinth of trails that limned open meadows, skirted beaver ponds & stayed sound & stable through the spruce & birch. As night fell, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually ever ask what trail marker I should be following. On some trees, CDs hung, on others, multi-colored reflectors, & then for the YQ, black & orange blazes. For some time, I ran alone, until a flooding light swept in behind me & Ryne passed with a beautiful looking team of dogs. Afterward, we wound our way out toward Pleasant Valley. A family handed me a bagged lunch with a sandwich & brownie &, of all things, a napkin. The napkin, it turns out, kept Chase laughing all the way through his first run. We are so filthy on the trail that such a nicety becomes almost absurd—although the thought behind it was incredibly touching.

Passing Pleasant Valley store & geeing into the ditch trail, I had the surprise of getting to see Kristin & Michael cheering us along—an unexpected boon. The dogs kept their steady, excited trot as we crossed the Chena Hot Springs Road & started along some winding trails buffeted on either side by looming copses of birch. We passed a team camped, then another, then another as we continued toward our goal of a camp somewhere close to 60 miles in. I found a suitable spot, hooked in the team, snowshoed out a turn-off & got everyone fed & bedded down for a five hour break. I laid down & caught a few minutes of sleep, the temperature nice & mild, the stars bright & enthusiasm coursing through my veins.

First Camp-Mile 101

When the alarm sounded, I took off everyone’s coats, bootied them up, snacked them & readied to head off down the trail. We had about fifteen miles into Two Rivers checkpoint, with a couple open water crossings that took just a bit of human lead-dogging. The dogs were alert, excited, moving nicely. At Two Rivers, we stopped just long enough to grab a few things from my drop bags & leave a few things for Kristin & Michael to take from my sled. No straw necessary & no excess weight for this run, as Rosebud loomed twenty miles downtrail.

Out of Two Rivers the trail started to variegate & engage us more—I started feeling grateful for all of our time out in Eureka with the Squids & Brent, running those challenging trails in icy conditions. The glaciation started to rear its head, with hairpin turns that careened directly into angled walls of ice. We never knew what was coming, & each time the dogs saw the “X” of two crossed trail markers (signifying difficult terrain), they seemed to glory in it, speeding up to round each corner.

A mile before Rosebud, I pulled over to take off booties, snack the dogs & get myself a little salmon jerky & water. I knew with a good climb ahead they could use all the traction they could get, & I could use all the fuel I could get. Sebastian & Amanda passed while I was pulled off, & I didn’t see either of those fine-looking teams again on trail. I put Norton & Littlehead up front, thanking Solo & Kabob for all of their tireless work leading the team so far. Norton & Littlehead have proven themselves powerhouses on hills & in wind, & I needed their relentless positive drive. Once I pulled the hook, we started gaining elevation right away, the trail sloping & gradual at first & then winding into serpentine switchbacks that climbed vermicular up the mountain. From the beginning, I lifted my drag break & pushed the sled, running behind. I’m a fan of running up hills most of the time. This one got a bit tiring somewhere along the way, I must admit, but chug along we did, stopping maybe twice up the main climb to catch our breath. The second stop, the sled was far enough above me that I couldn’t actually push it to get going without jumping. Iron & Doug were harness banging, cheerleading everyone along. Norty & Little did an amazing job, & up we climbed, the wind blowing sideways, visibility fairly low. Once we reached the first saddle, I knew we were having fun & started laughing & cheering along the dogs. They were incredible, & between every utterance, I’d shake my head & just say to myself, “unbelievable.”

The top of Rosebud & Boulder has a series of pyramidal castles that you climb rapidly & then descend in chutes that bear the ruts of teams that came before, ice deeply imbued with brown dirt. We were rocking our way up the hills, me sprinting behind, the dogs not missing a beat, until we came upon another team that stalled out. Tony had been unable to convince his dogs to get up one of the castles, so after talking, we decided I’d pull around & either try to motivate his team from the front or tie them off to my sled. Once I passed, his team perked right up & followed us no problem. On one of the steep chutes downhill, Doug took a misstep & hurt his shoulder a bit. When we hit treeline, I pulled over, giving the dogs congratulations. Tony pulled over behind & we re-bootied & snacked our dogs & both individually took in what we just experienced. Tony helped me put Doug in the sled bag & off we went. For one quarter mile.

Doug in a sled bag is one of those phenomena that cannot adequately be explained without the benefit of hearing him. He absolutely hates it. Kristin had to bag him coming into Tolsona on CB300, & we could hear him from two miles across the lake. He looks at you with these plaintive eyes & just howls, ceaselessly, more loudly than any dog in the history of mankind. You have to time your comments to the other dogs around the rare, brief pauses in his moaning. & all the while, he wrestles to escape.

As such, I ended up pulling over again to re-secure him & to wave Tony by. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’re going to know exactly where we are for the rest twenty miles.” He smiled & went along. The twenty miles of indefatigable moaning led us through all kinds of overflow, some of it up over my knees. At one point, I had to lead Norton & Little out into a crossing & then tug the sled by the gangline to get it moving behind them. Little took a bit of a swim, but otherwise, the dogs did a great job of remaining calm even when they were presented with new challenges. We finally crossed through the last section of overflow a half mile out from the checkpoint & arrived to find a dozen people with anxious looks on their faces. Doug’s moaning makes people think the worst. It sounds pretty convincingly like the beacon of the apocalypse. Once we pulled in & assuaged everyone’s fears, we got the team parked & bedded down for their first full vet check. I gave massages, fed the dogs, got some food in my own belly thanks to the wonderful volunteers at 101, & managed to sneak in a good forty minutes of sleep or so. (My total by the end was six hours over four days).

Mile 101-Central

Keeping an eye on Eagle Summit, I made my way through starting preparations, got some good advice from the race officials, kissed my lovely wife goodbye & set out to go up & over Eagle Summit with dusk falling. Norty & Littlehead were up in front again for another climb. The team loosened up over the first couple miles & then we started ascending. There was a wind advisory, & we did have to do a bit of work to keep on track, but the dogs were focused & up we went. It was dark by the time we reached the saddle up top. We followed from tripod to tripod & by the time I saw the tire in place for setting a hook, I also saw Norty & Little starting down over a precipice unlike any I’d ever seen before. Folks had cautioned that for three to fifteen seconds, you just sort of freefall & do your best. It’s an interesting feeling seeing your team disappear in front of you, over the cusp, into the night on the steepest descent you’ll ever experience on the runners. In my recollection, this black hole of a drop looks a bit like that man-eating cave-monster thing in Star Wars at Jabba the Hut’s place, with the trail markers standing in for the crooked yellow teeth. The claw brake worked sporadically for just long enough to catch & release, & otherwise, I said “easy” a hundred times & sort of held my breath. & then, that part was over. Just like that. Terrifying, absolutely, & then, over. The dogs took the hard gee & started up the second saddle. The second descent is much, much longer than the first, & you sidehill down it, for the most part. The good news is, it’s slightly less steep, so you have some semblance of control. I like to be able to mean “easy” when I say “easy,” so that was a fine perk. Even still, we flew down that mountain in breathtaking time. Once we hit bottom & wound our way off of Eagle & on to the trail to Central, I took stock, took a deep breath & looked closely at my dog team to see how everyone was doing.

& here is the most extraordinary thing: those dogs seemed to almost metabolize the experience immediately into confidence. It was as if they looked around for a moment, said “holy hell, we just did that,” & then all congratulated themselves, puffed out their chests & started flying down the trail. To see young dogs take on such unspeakably challenging terrain & internalize it so proudly & confidently left me speechless in awe. I have never been prouder of those dogs.

So amped up & confident were the dogs that in our zooming along we ended up somehow missing one crucial haw & finding ourselves instead going off trail headfirst into a drainage that was precisely the width & length of a dog team. With a team of young males all jazzed up over Eagle Summit, I had to rig a Rube Goldberg contraption in order to have a safe & effective come-haw & get us back on track. After a half hour with that, we were again running into the night, ready for the next challenge.

Regarding the next challenge, it turned out Norton likes normal ice alright, just not ice of curious hues. On the creek, we hit a long stretch of ice maybe 30 feet wide & ½ mile long & we cruised right along until there was a small & sudden patch of brownish-black ice by a gravel bar. Norton laid down, all fours splayed out. It was actually pretty adorable for such a big & capable dog. Norton took some convincing, but along we went. The trail into Central for the last few miles was along tussocks & back trails that had been driven by a truck or ATV, so the ruts were persistently nagging & all of us got beaten up a bit & shaken around by the exposed tundra. Nonetheless, we pulled into Central happy & amped up. I dropped T-Bone in Central, as he expressed to me a clear desire to go hang out with his mom & Michael instead of continuing along. No need to push folks who aren’t enjoying themselves, especially at this age.

We gathered some things from the drop bags, chatted for a bit with some folks & then headed out for Medicine Lake to make camp.

The trail out was varied—rough snow but straightforward, for the most part. Some tussocks before the airstrip, then the long beeline across Medicine Lake & into the trees. We found a good place to pull out that one of the 1,000 milers left behind & made camp for the night, the ice fog settling in, the temperatures plummeting, the moisture in the air chilling me through. It was a cold camp, but the dogs didn’t notice. I had bedded them in straw, in their insulated coats, & then covered them each over with another layer of straw. Another beautiful dog run, & we were right on my schedule.

Camp 2 – Circle

Birch Creek is a serpentine & endless river. I put Tinman in the bag ten miles into this run for a sore shoulder & he seemed to luxuriate in the ride. Otherwise, it went largely like this: Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. (Think about Chef Michael Roddy’s food at circle). Birch Creek.

& then, after getting into the trees & passing Aliy & Chase & Heidi coming the other way, we were just about to the checkpoint, hawed off onto the road & then…wound around a cabin & ended up in a straight line with Solo in single lead standing with his front paws on the step of an outhouse. Seriously. He led us by himself through a long slog & then circled a cabin to end up standing in front of a shitter as if he were patiently waiting to go in. So, I kicked out a trail, we went back over to the road & worked our way toward the fire hall. A squirrel ran in front of our team just before we rounded the corner into full view, so naturally, we arrived all looking perky & lively, which was a good boon. I owe that squirrel.

Kristin & I volunteered in Circle last year, so it was a special thing indeed to pull in & see Olaf & Jean & Michael & all the rest of the familiar faces. It was like coming home, in an odd way, & it felt incredibly comforting at that stage of the race.

I got everyone bedded down, fed & massaged. I would drop Tin there, but I let him hang out in team & get his fill of food & love first.

As for me, I went in & enjoyed the splendors of Chef Michael’s creation: two bowls of chili, an everything omelet, biscuits & gravy, three donuts, two scones & a gallon of water. Then, I promptly climbed on top of the fire truck & fell asleep for a solid couple of hours. It was amazing. I decided in Circle that after the long slog in I would give the dogs eight hours of rest. I had planned for it but was tempted to cut it to six in order to try to chase down Ryne or Amanda (though they blazed on in so quickly I don’t think I’d have seen hide nor hair). I was admittedly a bit wobbly while I was in Circle, but I had this feeling growing in me that my dogs were about to bust this thing open. I knew after a solid rest that they would be a consolidated, well-oiled machine leading me into the finish line.

Circle- Central

I was right. I put Norty & Little up front & we ran the first forty miles in five hours, blazing along with the dogs looking absolutely beautiful. Me, I didn’t fair quite as well. I found myself nodding off a bit & then hallucinating pretty consistently. I kept seeing suburban neighborhoods on the banks of the river, or connexes on the side of the trail. I saw a few white bats flying around. I saw non-existent headlights through oxbows in the river. I saw white sand beaches, the sun languid & easy over the rolling waves of cerulean water.

But every time I would start to let sleep overcome me, I would jerk my head up & see something even more incredible: a cohesive team of dogs on a mission for the finish line.

Ten miles before Medicine Lake, I put Solo up in single lead. He made it clear to me that if he was going to give it his all up front, then I damn well was going to have to give it my all from the runners too. As we sped along, I kicked & ran & pumped & cheered. Once off the creek, we blazed across Medicine Lake & started into the up & down trail outside Central. Solo was loping, throwing himself into every turn, & I had shed two layers in spite of the temperature & was sprinting with the dogs, calling them up, grinning ear to ear. As we drew closer & closer to the finish I started to tell them what they meant to me, how proud I was of them. Two miles out, I had tears streaming down my face & couldn’t stop telling them thank you, thank you, thank you. One mile out, we were all exhilarated, leaning into it, high-tailing it for the finish line.

& then there it was, the fire in the burn barrel, the group of folks huddled together, Darrin & Heidi watching the team in, Lauren holding up the red solo cup with a candle in it signifying my red lantern status, & my beautiful wife with a broad smile on her face. We loped in, the dogs overjoyed, my fist pumping in the air. I have never been so happy to come in last, never so very proud. We had done the 74 mile run in almost the same amount of time it took us to go 55 the day before. It was the finest dog run of my life, without question. I was so proud, so incredibly proud.

The banquet was a swift ordeal, but it reminded me just how amazing this community is. I got to race against some amazing people here, all of them high on their runs, all of them in love with their dogs & with this dream we all share. I raced against people that are fundamentally good, & I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to talk dogs afterwards with each & every one of them. If you wonder about the hearts of mushers, don’t. These people are pure & genuine & love what they are doing. & I can’t imagine in the least a better way to be.

A very sincere thank you to all of our supporters, all of the other mushers & dogs on the trail, the Yukon Quest organization, vets, volunteers, & fans. & to my darling wife & our breathtaking dogs.