Schandelmeier: A lonesome trail on the Yukon Quest

OutdoorsDecember 11, 2013 

It isn't my mind that is going, just my memory. It's been seven years since I last ran the Yukon Quest sled dog race and obviously I have forgotten many of the small details, because I just signed up for the 2014 running. Along with me, there are a few rookies who don't know any better and another dozen guys with poor memories.

I do remember the long night runs with a team of a dozen animals clicking along the trail like a beautiful machine under a magnificent aurora. I also remember the intense satisfaction of watching a young, untested dog become a confident, cocky adult somewhere along a long, lonely section of trail.

I have forgotten running along behind the sled at minus 50, counting one hundred steps, jumping on the runners for a 20 count, then trotting along again to keep warm. I forgot how downright awful frozen Pop-Tarts taste on Day 5. (Or was it Day 2?) However, they do have 400 calories. And training: up at 5 a.m. -- feed the dogs -- run a 60 -- feed the dogs -- hook up team number two and do it again.

Why are there only 20 Quest sign-ups and 70 for the Iditarod? I have heard repeatedly from mushers: "the Quest is cold and dark!" It is. So is Alaska anywhere during the winter. I have a lot of Yukon Quests behind me, most as a musher, but a couple as the trail coordinator, and I have come to realize there is likely a different, more compelling reason. The Yukon Quest trail is lonesome.

On the Iditarod, a musher is rarely alone. Other teams, snowmobiles and aircraft overhead create a constant hubbub. One is alone for only hours at a time, instead of days. In the world of today, that is familiar. I can remember several Quest runs from Eagle to the finish line in Fairbanks when I did not see a dog team or a snowmobile moving on the trail for almost 400 miles. A dozen of my best friends and I, plus the occasional hallucination, had the world of snow to ourselves.

Looking in from the outside, you might surmise that dog mushing is a solitary activity. In reality, that is rarely the case these days. Kennels have websites, Facebook and other social media. They are constantly in contact with the world. Most are very close to our larger communities. Jump from that life, onto the 170-mile stretch of the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle City and contemplate the change -- just a few lynx tracks and the frosty, empty cabin at the mouth of the Kandik.

I recall a Quest, traveling with Thomas Tetz at 40 below, pulling into the Kandik cabin in the wee hours of the morning. The cabin was still warm from the fire of the departing trailbreakers. That is one of the most welcoming memories of many Quest years. The simple pleasure of a still-warm cabin was accentuated later that morning when we met Hugh Neff, traveling the wrong direction after spending the night in the snow. Things can go south.

Speaking of South, writing about the Yukon Quest makes Hawaii sound real fine. It costs a lot less also. My little vacation along the Yukon will be expensive.

Personally, I have long abandoned any attempt at appearing to be normal. That is one advantage of poor memory and advancing age. It is 7 a.m. It is time to hook up the dogs.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.


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