It's 10 days until the start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The field of 18 starters is the smallest group in my memory. The food drops were completed last Saturday. Volunteers, far outnumbering mushers, whisked away the drop bags as they were unloaded from trucks, counting and stacking before I could jump down from the tailgate. Thirty-odd 40-pound sacks of food; enough to get a 14-dog team across 1,000 miles of the Alaska Interior.
What is in the bags? There are similarities in most of the mushers' drops. Dog kibble, beef, chicken and fat can be found in most. There are variations in feed brands, the types of meat and packaging, but there are usually only minor differences.
The rookies' drops may be a little less organized, depending on whether they have a good mentor or not. The first year I ran the Yukon Quest, way back before snow was organized into a trail, I sent out a few 50-pound blocks of ground chicken. I had very limited racing experience and a small group of trapline dogs who were more like wild friends than the classic sled dog. I neglected to cut the chicken up prior to the race. I learned quickly that it is extremely tough to balance a huge, rock-hard chunk of meat on the top of one's sled while bouncing along a minimal trail through the jumbled Yukon River ice north of Circle City.
I finally pitched the unruly chicken into the brush and continued down the trail. Naturally, less than 100 miles farther down the track, I ran short of dog food. I had no idea that a single dog could eat eight or 10 pounds of food every 24 hours. Good fortune smiled when my pack of unruly trapline dogs found a good pile of frozen, half-spoiled salmon along the riverbank just upstream of the mouth of the Little Charley River. Forty miles farther on, Jeff King took pity on this sorry rookie and knocked the food that his dogs had not eaten from their pans -- next to my eight-dog team. I have not forgotten, though he may have: Thanks, Jeff. I have never run short of dog food again on any race.
There is more to drops than food. There are supplements necessary to control potential diarrhea, maintain mineral health and care for feet. Hundreds of dog booties are not just a requirement, but essential. First-time mushers today have fair experience racing (the Quest requires 500 miles of previous race experience), so the use of booties is very familiar. My first Quest required no such experience. My dog team time was mostly trapline and wilderness trips. Booties on dogs that travel slowly and stop often are not as necessary. I showed up at the race with very few booties. I was quickly informed that without better preparation I was going to be sent home. I rushed to the closest thrift store and bought their entire stock of baby socks and a roll of surgical tape. Trust me; infant socks work! Mushers are more knowledgeable today.
Besides being smarter than I was 30 years ago, racers are now able to have a truck at nearly every checkpoint along the trail. This enables them to send enough equipment and supplies to cover every eventuality. Handlers can recover the provisions that aren't used. Central, Circle City and Eagle used to be inaccessible by vehicle, now it is only Eagle that isn't connected to the Quest trail by a maintained road.
Dawson City, Yukon, is the hub of preparation. This town is the midpoint of the Quest. Mushers' supplies are shipped there by the race organization, but they can also be brought in by each team's handlers. Dog teams are required to spend 36 hours at this checkpoint. It can be 40 above or 40 below. Good groundwork in Dawson is key to successfully completing the race. Trucks arrive in Dawson after the 1,100-mile rush from Circle. They come loaded with leftover equipment from other checkpoints, plus everything necessary to set up a self-sustained camp for their musher and 14 dogs. Tents, tarps, straw and untold other miscellaneous items are unloaded and organized -- or not, as the case may be.
I opted not to have a truck or handler in Dawson on my first Yukon Quest. I simply saw no need, nor could I afford the cost. That is rarely done in the modern Quest. The competition has changed, plus there are many more veteran mushers, not just competing, but also assisting in the event. Veterans are more aware of all the little things that can go wrong on one thousand miles of dog trail. Instead of packing 25 bags with supplies, 35 is now closer to the norm.
I still pack very little in the way of gear for myself, but I have a plethora of items for dog care. There may only be 250 sled dogs on the trail in the 2014 Yukon Quest, but there are almost 700 bags of food and gear available to get them happy and healthy through 10 days of traveling. The next 10 days are the time to second-guess the food drop list. If you didn't pack it, you don't have it!
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.