Posts Tagged ‘Yukon Quest’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 16, 2011

Quest Finish

Still cold in the Interior.  The temperatures here on the ridge hovered around twenty below all day, slightly warmer than yesterday, but still cold to be out on the Chena River moving at a blazing five miles an hour behind a team of tired dogs.  As I went about my day of meetings and classes, phone calls and e-mails, part of my mind was always on the progress of mushers on the Quest trail.

At the end of the day, I logged back into the Quest site to discover that there was a new leader, Dallas Seavey, a twenty-three-year-old rookie who planned on using the Quest as a training race for the Iditarod.   Rookies usually run this tough race a few years before they end up in the top four, but  Seavey isn’t a real rookie.  His father, Mitch, has been running long-distance dogs for years, and he is following the family tradition.   His bio says he’s been training dogs his whole life and this flawless run shows it.

But this race has been like a novel with its interwoven threads of drama.  I keep thinking of Jack London, a writer too often overlooked in the American literary canon, perhaps because his work–at least the Northern stories–seems so romanticized.  The relationships between men and dogs in White Fang and Call of the Wild seemed romantic to me before I lived in Alaska in their suggestion of  deep attachment between human and dog, yet that attachment is what a long race like the Quest is all about.  There’s also the race between mushers and their ultimate enemy, the cold.   Even the strongest musher can become slow-moving and slow-witted if some accident of the trail leaves him or her chilled.  Ghatt’s plunge into overflow, Neff’s delay by a blizzard at the most daunting summit of the trail, these are the accidents of the North, the luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We follow the Quest because it reminds us of our own fragile peace with the cold and dark of winter.  The race comes at the first return of light in February, when we start to consider the return of spring.  But winter hasn’t let go yet, as the temperatures of the last few days show.  I drove home today in dimming afternoon.  Behind me to the east, towards Canada and the path the mushers were on, the sky was slaty blue, darkening quickly.  Ahead of me, to the west there was a watery pale light lingering over the ridge.  I had plans of building a fire in the stove, feeding Mattie and Sam, eating a bit, then heading down to the river to see the first place winner come gliding in toward the finish.

But luck has its own ways.  The house was cold and it took me a while to realize that we were out of fuel oil and needed to make a run back to town for a gas can full to tide us over till the truck can come out tomorrow.  On the way down the hill, we saw what looked like a house fire on the flats–floodlights and smoke and flashing red and blue lights.  Like the mushers, we need to pay attention to what’s around us, to the details of survival that keep us going.

We came home and got the boiler going again.  The window in the woodstove is flickering with birch flames; the house is heating slowly.  Phoebe, the cat, is curled under my arm as I type, one paw resting on the laptop, purring slowly.  The remaining mushers on the trail will continue to come in over the next few days, including the handful of women on the trail, who I’ll write more about tomorrow.

Till then, congratulations to Dallas and to Sebastien, who followed him in short order.  Congratulations and a scratch on the ears for all good dogs who pay attention to the trail and lead us on.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 14, 2011

Yukon Quest

The leaders of the Yukon Quest are a day away from their finish in Fairbanks, after a long week and a half on the trail from White Horse, Yukon Territory.  When they left White Horse, the weather was balmy for the Interior in February–temperatures above zero, clear skies.  But in the last day or two temperatures in Fairbanks have dropped to thirty below, and for the mushers along the trail now between Dawson and Circle, strung out along the frozen Yukon or attempting Eagle Summit, it is even colder–in some spots nearly fifty below.

What started as a glorious race, the front-runners in high spirits about their dogs and their abilities, takes a perilous turn at about this point.  One musher, a multiple Quest winner, Hans Ghatt, broke through overflow–where water breaks over thick ice above  a stream–and became wet to his shoulders.  When  the next musher came upon him, he was going into hypothermia, and heard the musher approach as in a dream.  The second musher helped him back to the checkpoint, where he learned that he had frozen a couple of fingers, and, knowing when to accept the luck he had, he scratched from the race.

The leader, Hugh Neff, seemed to be burning up the trail, hours ahead of the others, but the cold and a storm on Eagle Summit stalled him and a second musher, who caught up with him and stalled as well.  A third musher came and helped Neff’s team up the hill, but near the summit, they turned and retreated back down the hill.  Now, the leaders have switched positions, and Neff may or may not get back on the trail again.

Whenever I have a good reason to, I have my students read London’s story, “To Build A Fire,” which has special significance to them if they’ve been here a few winters or have grown up anywhere in Alaska.  In the story, the man is condemned by his insistence that reason is more reliable than the instincts of a dog.  Anyone who has followed the Quest knows differently.  The Quest dogs are hearts with legs and tails; they will do anything for their mushers, who, in turn, will do anything for their dogs.  One rookie musher sleeps in the hay along with her dogs when she camps at night.  Any Quest musher–even the toughest–gets teary eyed when talking about the dogs in the team.

So it’s tough on everyone when dogs die in the race, and they do.  Usually, after necropsy,it’s clear there’s a reason–an undetected weakness in a blood vessel, for example–but often the cause is unclear.  Like endurance horses or race horses, these dogs get constant veterinary care when they are at rest.  If there is any chance that a dog is ill or unfit, they are pulled from the race.  No mistreatment of dogs is tolerated by mushers or by race officials.  Still, the race itself is a risk,with long stretches of solitude, away from human contact.  Things happen.

The race is an elemental test of human and animal spirit–not for everyone.  And it’s starkly beautiful.  Photos of the teams running along the flat white highway of the Yukon against the backdrop of the river bluffs are dramatic and compelling.  There are few challenges that match it, even for an armchair follower like me.

Outside it’s dropping down below twenty below here on the ridge.  Mattie and Sam have long late-winter coats that keep them well-insulated, and I’ll head out before bedtime to take them another flake of hay.  I’ll look up at the waxing gibbous moon, if it’s still above the ridgeline behind the house, and think of those mushers on the trail, running and resting in the soft gray light, thinking of the hamburgers waiting for them at Angel Creek and of the flags on the Cushman Street bridge in Fairbanks, rising over the Chena River, the finish, and a well-deserved rest.  Any time they get there, someone will be there, cheering the dogs for a few more yards, welcoming them all home.

Quest Update

February 24, 2009

Sebastian Schnuelle has won the Yukon Quest.  Hugh Neff second; John Little third.  They’ll be coming in all afternoon and through the night.  Happy dogs!  Happy mushers!

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 24, 2009

Mardi Gras and the Yukon Quest

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, my back to the sun shining in over the deck windows behind me, still to the south, but higher now. When I started this blog in January, the sun barely gleamed above the horizon for a few minutes then slipped behind Becker Ridge, the next ridge to the west. Now passes up above the ridge, so that there’s a luxury of sunlight. I almost take it for granted that I can go out with the horses as late as 3 or 4 and still have time to work with them a little. They are glad to be left alone in the morning, standing east to west, their furry sides flat to the sun, switching position to follow the sun or change to the other side, like sunbathers working on their tans.

This morning, the news of the Yukon Quest is that the lead has switched again. Hugh Neff, who passed Bill Kleedehn on Eagle Summit had a two hour penalty at the Twin Bears layover, so left a half hour behind Sebastian Schnuelle, headed to town. They left around 5am, so may be pulling into the Chena River finish line right now. The cause of the former leading team’s refusal was a lead dog in heat–a great distraction to the dogs behind her. As is typical of Quest mushers, several mushers stopped to help Kleedehn up the summit until he finally made it over. Eagle Summit, location of the treacherous Pinnell Mountain Trail, is steep and rocky, often closed in with blowing snow or fog. Even though the race switches direction every year, sometimes starting in Fairbanks, sometimes in White Horse, YT, Eagle Summit is often the breaking point for mushers in the race. But all is well, and the first set of mushers will be eating high calorie food by tonight, their dogs nested comfy in their dog boxes.

It’s Mardi Gras today, and I haven’t cooked pancakes or thrown beads. Here, it’s a remote holiday, like Groundhog Day, but I will look at the seed catalogs again and place an order for colorful vegetables in honor of the day.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 23, 2009

More on dogs.

I’m listening to a report on the Yukon Quest. The teams went over Eagle Summit last night and the leader, Bill Kleedehn, who seemed to have an unbeatable lead coming out of Dawson City, stalled when his team refused go continue on up the steep trail. Now Hugh Neff is in the lead and heading for the Twin Bears checkpoint 80 miles away from the finish in Fairbanks. By tomorrow morning the teams will be heading through North Pole and down the frozen Chena River to the finish line beneath the Cushman Street Bridge in downtown Fairbanks.

This is our Groundhog Day. This is spring in the Interior. The dogs, tired but eager, strung out along the gang line, trotting down the smooth white expanse of river. The mushers, their world focused on the narrow world of the teams strung out ahead, the texture of the ice and snow, the effects of the sun on ice, the heat or lack of heat–too much, and the dogs will stop pulling and want to roll in snow to cool down.

When the first teams come in, they will be met with cheers, flashing cameras and cell phones, newspaper, TV, and radio reporters. A flurry of activity, no matter what time they come in, then a long rest for musher and dogs till everyone’s across the line-this can take up to two weeks for the last team, the red lantern–then a feast and celebration.

We may go down to the river to see the teams come in. Even those of us who wouldn’t think of following our dogs for two weeks on a dog sled know that these mushers carry the spirit of the old Alaska with them. They are our heroes in the old sense–the ones who defeat the enemy, winter, for us. For Interior Alaskans, a musher who had attempted, much less completed the Yukon Quest, enters a different realm of Alaskan credibility, a ritual transformation that few of us have attempted.

The dogs will retire after a few seasons to become recreational mushing dogs or ski-joring dogs or the core of a racing dog breeding program. Once they have pulled a thousand mile race, they want nothing more than to be in harness again with their pack, tongues out to the wind, feeling the snow beneath their feet, breathing the smells of the other dogs around them.

Once all the teams are safely in, we all breathe a sigh of relief. It’s nearly March. The Ice Carving championships begin, the last sprint team championships will speed through 2nd Avenue soon, then the roads will start to melt and freeze, the temperatures will tease above freezing on some days, then dip back down at night.

But now, we hold our breath and wait. Will Kleedehn’s dogs, tired of being passed by other teams on the mountainside, suddenly give a great heave and reach the summit? Will Neff or Little or someone else get lost in the maze of mushing trails near town and miss the chance to win? It’s happened more than once. Will a moose, munching on a stand of willows with its new calves, step out in the trail, stopping everyone in the tangle of a standoff?

And this is how we pass the last week of February, ready for the promise of March.

(For Yukon Quest updates go to

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 20, 2009

It’s time to write about dogs.

On Wednesday, Jeter, the brown standard poodle, went in for “the big snip” and a crown reduction. We waited till now–he’s eleven months old–to do the neutering in hopes that his bones would develop better and his underdeveloped lower jaw would grow in. It didn’t, and he has an overbite and what used to be called in humans a “weak” chin. Dr. Jean, the canine dentist, pointed this out to us the first time we brought him in as a nine-week-old pup, and we’ve been monitoring it since. The lower canines were growing inside the upper ones, pressing against the roots. To make matters worse, the lower incisors were making holes in his upper palate. He’s a happy dog and loves treats, but has always seemed a bit picky about crunchy food like puppy kibble.

At one point we considered doggie braces–yes, they exist–but the teeth had too far to move to be in alignment, and the problem was really the lack of jaw growth. So Dr. Jean decided to cut down the points of the canines and file back the lower incisors, hoping to relieve the irritation of the upper jaw. He’s a bit mopey now, but healing, and pretty much the happy dog he’s always been.

I could write about the problems of inbreeding, but won’t. Jeter’s parents weren’t closely related, but in breed dogs, like in horses, there are certain lines that show up in most pedigrees, and a dog like Jeter, with all his wonderful qualities, can end up with a recessive gene.

But the big dog news here is the Yukon Quest, which started a week ago in White Horse, Yukon Territory, and is on its way to Fairbanks from the mid way point in Dawson City as of today. Like the more famous Iditarod race, this race covers 1000 miles of historic gold rush trail. Unlike the Iditarod, which is mostly flat, the Quest covers rough hilly terrain, with several challenging hill climbs such as Eagle Summit. Unlike the Iditarod, mushers on the Quest must carry all their supplies and be prepared to camp along the trail.

For the mushers, it’s a purer race, taking them back to the days when the dog sled was a main form of transportation. There are long stretches of trail where the mushers and their teams are alone with the sound of snow under the runners. When they come in on the frozen Chena River, they’ll be frosty and a bit wild-eyed, their faces lean with hunger and lack of sleep. The dogs, once they realize it’s the end of the race, will flop down in the snow and rest watchfully till the finishing hoopla dies down, then dutifully hike over to the waiting dog truck for a meal and a boost into a waiting straw-lined dog box, their moveable den.

The dogs in long-distance races are bigger and a bit shaggier than the slim little dogs of the shorter 15-30-mile sprint races. They are bred to pull and are eager to get in harness and move out with their “pack”. Breeding sled dogs is a whole craft industry in Alaska, each breeder mixing his or her own combination of traits throughout years of breeding to develop the ultimate dog. These are not Malamutes, though there are some dogs that have that big shouldered white-masked look. Many sled dogs trace their lines back to early “Eskimo dogs” with lots of other types mixed in. In past years, mushers have tried breeding in greyhounds, shepherds, various hunting hounds, even poodles. One year a musher went the whole 1000 miles of Iditarod trail with a team of poodles, but, since a poodle coat is basically soft undercoat, the dogs would freeze to the snow where they lay down at the rest stops.

Jeter will never have to worry about being recruited into a race team.

%d bloggers like this: