My First Yukon Quest Experience: Part Two

Hello again!

If you would like to refresh yourself on Part One of my Yukon Quest Adventure, click here: https://sallyann16.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/my-first-yukon-quest-experience-part-one/ 

Just to have a small recap here is how the last post ended…

So my Saturday began in the dog tent, tucking in the sleepy sled dogs with yellow fleece blankets, and then covering them with straw. – Again- I was more than happy to be given a task, I was outdoors, with furry sweethearts, and there was no homework to be spoken of! Just frosty ears to be rubbed and more dog poo to be avoided. 

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If I had a comfy leather arm chair and a nice drink to sip on while my feet warmed by the fire- that’d be great.

Unfortunately I am feeling sick to my stomach about school. So I will do my best to leave behind the stresses and dip back into Yukon Quest weekend, -30 below temperatures, and wonderful memories.

All the photos unless otherwise stated were taken by Nicolas Schneider. Thank you Nico for all of you wonderful photographs!

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So – It is Saturday Morning- Maybe 5am, maybe 6am, what I do know is that it is bloody cold- and my mind hasn’t even registered if I put my boots on the correct feet. But first- blanket the dogs.
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These sweethearts barely moved an inch while we tucked them in. First, small yellow fleece blankets, then a thick layer of straw- some of the dogs were dead to the world, tucked in their little tight balls of warmth (feet tucked under bodies, nose tucked under tail, eyes squeezed shut) while others were wide awake, shivering, pacing, peeing, and well, pooping.
Not even my neck warmer pulled up over my nose could stop the wretched stench from making me scrunch my nose and grimace.
Ah yes, any appetite that I did have soon disintegrated.
I did what I could to warm up the dogs, and soon it was time to feed. My mind was slowly coming back to a regular working fashion as the frost gathered on my hair peeking out from my parka hood. Was it minus 30? minus 40? I don’t know- thank god I packed extra socks.
I don’t think I will forget the smell of the dog’s breakfast either- this meat, that meat, and more meat, kibble, water, all coming to a boil. Looking like week old porridge.
Interesting.
Feeding, walking, poop scooping, day light arrives- we soon head into town to have breakfast at The Downtown Hotel.
Oatmeal.
I was thrilled that instead of beaver meat, I had brown sugar instead- and that it did not smell like what the dogs ate earlier that morning. Though it sure looked like the dog’s breakfast.
Nico, Alex, and I head back to camp to do chores. I felt a bit like a puppy following the guys – as this seemed old hat for Nico and Alex. For me it was all new- besides hauling firewood.
It might be 830am or 9am…My roommate Glenda would still be in her housecoat, sipping coffee by a hot fire – I smiled to myself as I found myself once again trouble shooting on how to pick up the dog crap with scrap plastic so to as not dirty my only pair of cold weather mitts. For some wild reason- I was still thrilled I was over in West Dawson doing outdoor chores- because if it had been a regular Saturday- I would be worrying about school.
No time for that here.
Jerry would be leaving tonight- so all eyes were being kept on the dog’s wellbeing, as well as Jerry’s.
The amount of work involved in mushing is beyond what I expected, especially when the universe deems your run to be a difficult one. Jerry had already totalled one dog sled, and after he left Dawson- he will yet again break another sled.
Nico, Alex and I finished the chores early and were able to warm ourselves up by the small woodstove in the wall tent for a short while.
It was great conversation- as I literally jumped two feet in the night before, volunteering with complete strangers, it was nice to swap questions and short stories. I admire both of them immensely- the work ethic and stamina needed to be a dog handler is not something that just anybody could do. And I envied their plans of adventures. Oh how I wanted to drop everything and just explore!
This is Nico and Alex at the Banquet (End of Yukon Quest) – Thank you Susan Mooney for the photo!
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Afternoon rolls around- I have to head back to Dawson to meet up with a local (Jim) who has offered to try to fix my snowmobile.
I hitch a ride with Nico on the snowmobile across the ice road.
I arrive home, strip down to one piece longjohns, open the fridge, and EAT.
My roommate simply observes with a raised eyebrow as my inner lumberjack scarfs down the food like a I myself ran the Yukon Quest.
Followed by falling asleep for a quick cat nap- (I did not even make it under the covers)
Sled was tinkered with, and after a shower and a new set of wool socks and longjohns, I make my way over to West Dawson- This time on my snowmobile. It was dark when I left my home on the dome- and I decided to zip down the “long way” to town- to get on to the ice road in a more efficient manner. Between the mist, the darkness, and my worry of my sled breaking down, the trip across the river was a bit tense. The only thing guiding me was the small little wooden posts on the edge of the ice road- showing me where to turn, what path to follow. Little did I know I was operating a machine with a faulty battery- so I think myself very lucky that I did not strand myself in the middle of the Yukon River that Saturday evening.
I arrive in the midst of chaos. I see a skimmer and tarp with misclaneous objects strewn all over the ground beside the wall tent. I see Jerry and his dog sled,  I see five headlamp orbs bouncing around the dog tent, wall tent, and the tarp, there is a feeling of excitement, but also stress in the air. I find Lisa, and ask what I can do to help, and I am immediately sent to the dog tent to check and walk the dogs. Some of the dogs are fast asleep, some refuse to eat, and some are pacing, ready to run, ready to go. Once again I find myself coaxing and massaging, talking gently to the tired dogs, convincing them to stand up and proceed to walk out of their comfy warm straw beds to go for a quick walk.
I am also put in charge to watch who is eating. Some of the dogs are turning away from their food and water, letting it freeze to the bottom of the bowls. No matter how much I push the bowl closer to their noses, dump it on the ground in front of them, they simply tuck their noses back under their tails and close their eyes. Lucie gives me a bag of frozen meat- “They will eat this!”.  I am reassured by Lucie’s quick thinking  when I start handing out the frozen chunks of beaver meat.
The photo below is of Charles and Lucie at the Yukon Quest banquet.
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Dogs are eating. Check. Back to Lisa, I am soon given tasks such as fetching straw with Nico, changing headlamp batteries, feeding Lisa’s dogs with Alex and Nico, wherever I can be of service, I make myself available. I am soon given the task to tell Lisa what time it is- every 5 minutes.
It seems that every five minutes that pass, the excitement in the air becomes more and more apparent, but also, the panic becomes more and more apparent as well.
Jerry is behind his schedule. The sled is not fully packed, the dogs have not been hooked up to the sled, and his departure time is looming closer and closer.
Once again I am amazed by Jerry and Lisa’s commitment and teamwork. Feeling that I am now more in the way than being helpful- I step back to simply observe. I would not say Lisa and Jerry are polar opposites- but their differences push and pull at each other, creating a powerful melody that sets Jerry up to succeed. It was fascinating to witness all the tasks that needed to be done, and by done, I mean done in mere seconds. There was no time for stumbling around, and asking questions. Now was not the time to ask for detailed instructions on how to pack a sled.
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The night before- I remember asking Lisa when she began mushing. It seems if my memory serves me correctly,  mushing and crossing paths with Jerry happened at the same time, when Lisa was 19. “It’s a lifestyle” she said. A real commitment, both financially and well, just everything. Your whole life revolves around the dogs.
I found this so fascinating, to be able to experience a lifestyle I had never known, a lifestyle I had only seen from the outside. Yes the glamour was still there, but it was buried, buried deep below much more important things. Responsibility, a hard work ethic, passion, and a bit of crazy, among other things, that makes up this hardy lifestyle called Dog Mushing.
Here’s a photo of Nico and the dogs
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Soon I am hooked back into the chaos- which is now becoming more and more heated and frantic. I am given the task to bring the dogs down to the sled, to hook them up. (I am not even sure I am using the proper terminology for any of this by the way, so bear with me!) One dog, two dogs, I don’t know and don’t care what I had just kneeled in, the dogs needed to be out and ready to pull. Every five minutes I shout the time to Lisa. Jerry should have been at the send off by now. But as cool as a cucumber (at least on the outside) he was checking his bag, checking his sled, and now preparing to put boots on the dogs. I am sent to grab the dog jackets, and count the dog blankets to be placed in Jerry’s sled. I catch myself running from sled to dog tent, more than a dozen times in under a half hour.
Coats- check
Boots- check
Howling like wolves?- check
Everything is a blur, Lisa is running around, checking everything twice, three times, four times, checking on Jerry, Jerry checking on dogs, Nico holding the leader at the front of the sled, there are too many people, too many people, the chaos just became way more congested, I run over and catch Lisa by the arm. She is squinting in the dark trying to fix the clasps on the rope. She keeps fumbling at her forehead, looking for the headlamp that is  always strapped there. Only now Jerry has it as backup, packed away. I rip off my headlamp and place it in her hands, then step back out of the chaos.
It seems much quieter, just three feet away, from all the running, howling, and orders. I take a deep breath and look skyward.
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The lights had come out to play once again!
Slipping, sliding, twirling, I could feel my eyelashes start to freeze as I watched the lights caressing the river, mountains, and trees, shimmering in all shades of green, pink, and purple.
I blink.
And the noise returns, the howls, the calls for Jerry to get on the sled, the good luck hugs, the scraping of the sled, the sound of the dog’s claws digging into the icy snow, it was time to head to the sendoff point.
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Lisa and Jerry hang on together, while Nico runs with the dogs in the front. The rest of us follow behind on foot, walking fast paced like excited children, I am talking with an old timer, Harvey, about my snowmobile. He tells me it’s time for me to get my own sled and dogs. Harvey chuckles and adds, he never has a problem starting them (his dog team) in the morning. I laugh, but also do an inward groan. I really hope my sled will start once Jerry is on his way.
Jerry gets to the sendoff point. The dogs are rearing to go. After a few questions and one last check, Jerry is on his way. Gliding onto the Yukon River, Jerry heads south to Whitehorse, the final trek of the race. We see him on the river, passing the campsite- Lisa calls out to him one last time, we all cheer, his reply “I should have eaten dinner!”.
Oh dear.
We get back to the campsite, everyone is wet, cold, and exhausted. I make eye contact with Lisa, she smiles, and pulls me into a big bear hug. I thank her for letting me be her shadow for a couple of days, and also apologize for any time I may have gotten in the way. She shakes her head, she thanks me for coming along. For rolling up my sleeves and diving in for some tough work.
Inside my soul- I am beaming, tired and cold, but beaming with joy. What a fantastic weekend, a wonderful break away from the things that stress me most. I thank Lisa again. I am so thankful for that “Yukon Hospitality” , the opportunity to learn new skills, to challenge myself, to be with like-minded people, and what a bonus, like-minded people close to my age!  *Nico and Alex*
What is also happening inside my soul is a little cloud of sadness, brewing slowly. Soon, these people will have to leave, soon, I will be back to school drowning in frustration. I hang on to every thread of happiness this spectacular weekend has gifted me. I thank everyone who made this weekend so fantastic! And thank you Nico for sharing your wonderful pictures!
Due to another penalty from breaking a sled, Jerry ended up winning the “Red Lantern”, even though he crossed the finish line before others, his penalty was added onto his race time, thus placing him in last place.
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But really, it is not the prize money that makes the Quest. It’s the adventure that is the true reward.
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Enduring the extremes, pushing the boundaries, and mushing through Alaskan and Yukon backcountry. Completing the race. That is the true reward, both for Musher and Dog.
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 I feel so very blessed to have had such a wonderful weekend with the Joinsons, Nico, Alex, Charles, and Lucie, and everyone else at the Yukon Quest Dawson City Checkpoint ! Thank you- and I hope we stay in touch and cross paths again!
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