John Schandelmeier: Satellite trackers are turning sled dog racing into a video game

John Schandelmeier
GPS transmitter mounted to a sled at the Iditarod restart in Willow on Sunday, March 7, 2010.
Bill Roth
Canadian musher Normand Casavant passes a trail marking tripod on the wind-blown and cloud-obscured pass at Eagle Summit early Sunday morning, Feb. 2, 2014 on day two of the Yukon Quest sled dog race. Richard J. Murphy / UAF Journalism
Richard J Murphy

It's a bit late to be writing about the Yukon Quest. The last participant crossed the finish line over 10 days ago. However, the Fur Rondy dog race has just been completed and the Iditarod will start in a few days. Alaska's state sport is on my mind. I hope that it is on everyone's. The world of mushing is undergoing change.

Dogs haven't changed. Their personalities and the way we hook them up and run them is still technically the same. No, the major change has come with technology. The cell phone has changed the way we interact with each other. A few days ago I delivered a load of firewood to a friend. My wife (in our truck) and her friend (in the house) talked on their phones as I unloaded and stacked the wood. They didn't meet face-to-face; they talked cell-to-cell.

No cell phones are allowed on the Quest or the Iditarod. However, both races have Spot trackers.

Everyone I talk with says; "Yay for Spots!" We now know almost to the minute the location of our favorite team on the trail. Folks in Bangladesh could tell you how fast I was going out of the last Quest checkpoint of Braeburn. That is something that even I didn't know. Isn't that great?

Maybe trackers are wonderful, or possibly I am just trying to send water up a rope, but here is another thought. If we have a Spot Tracker on every team, have we taken the "dog" out of dog racing and just created an elaborate video game? What tells those looking at a website page of moving blips that they are looking at anything more than a game? I submit for discussion that we are taking the personality out of racing sled dogs. Is it Rainy or Fender leading my team? Which dog did I drop at the last checkpoint and why?

Heck -- is there even anyone on the sled? There may be only a webmaster creating an intricate scheme. On the Iditarod there are enough observers on the trail where such a scenario might be impossible. Not so on the Yukon Quest. I traveled a 480-mile section of the Quest trail without seeing another dog team moving. I passed through a couple of checkpoints that had sitting teams. Those teams could have belonged to a local musher for all anyone uninformed might know. There was almost no media on the trail. They wrote about the Quest from what they were told and from interviewing the front three guys. Fourth through the back forever became part of the video game.

The Yukon Quest spends a significant amount of time marketing their event. The result is over 400,000 hits on the game screen. Good? Maybe. Not great. Great would be if there was print or video footage of a nice-looking team going in and out of a checkpoint. Please zoom in on the eager team. I had a little dog named Nellie that was jumping with all fours off the ground to continue running -- at the last checkpoint and the finish line. This is old news, because we are talking of fifth place, two weeks ago. I would guess that almost every team had a dog like Nellie. The tracker can't show a photo of Nellie jumping to go after a thousand miles on the trail. The Spot tracker can't tell the screen follower that Nellie was named after my Mom.

To a great extent, electronics on the long-distance dog race have taken the reporter from the trail and put them in front of a monitor. No longer does one stand in the cold talking with local folks wondering about the trail and when a headlamp might come into view. The checkpoint-building spews media when the tracker says a team is coming to town in five minutes. Without trackers we might get back to the villages, people and local personalities that created the mystique of long-distance dog racing in the first place. How does one find the personality in a video game

John Schandelmeier