Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Dalton Gang

These few posts on the 2014 Yukon Quest race are looonnnggg overdue...
This is a team introduction of the Dalton Gang.  I was fortunate enough to be a handler for the Healy musher Dave Dalton in the 1,000 mile race.  It was a grand adventure that I got to share with my father-in-law!

Healy is 7 years old and it was her 5th YQ.
Denali is 7 years old and it was her 3rd YQ.
Healy and Denali are Dave's main leaders.  They are very trustworthy and always dependable.
Sandy is 6 years old and it was her 4th YQ.  She is such a sweetheart!  Gives the best hugs :)
Happy is 4 years old and she was a rookie.
Sandy and Happy will be in the swing position mostly.  They will also lead to give Healy and Denali a break.  They are team cheerleaders...always barking and ready to go.
This is Bashful.  She was 4 years old and it was her 2nd YQ.  She was always so hyper.
Doc is 4 years old and this was his 4th YQ.  This smiling dog is also a cheerleader!
Dopey (above) and Grumpy (below) are both 4 years old and it's their 3rd YQ.  They are both fabulously solid team dogs.

Sleepy is 4 years old and this is his 4th YQ.  Sleepy barks at his partners if they aren't pulling their weight.
Bobber (above) and Spinner (below) are brothers and are 3 years old.  This was Bobber's 2nd YQ.  He is another cheerleader, always barking while moving down the trail :)
Spinner was a rookie.  He ended up surprising Dave the most with an amazing performance.
This is Al.  He is 6 years old and this was his 5th YQ.  He is always ready to go!
Sheldon is 7 years old and this was his 5th YQ.  He has always been a very powerful team dog and this was his first year as a leader also.
And last but not least, Al.  He is 4 years old and this was his 2nd YQ.  He is an upcoming leader.

Yukon Quest: Part 1

Finally, after months (and even years) of training the big day finally came.  Dave Dalton's 24th 1,000 mile race across Alaska and the Yukon Territory began February 1st.  This year, being an even numbered year, the race started in downtown Fairbanks.  In odd numbered years it starts on the other end in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.  Normally the race starts on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, but because of an unseasonably warm winter and poor river ice conditions they decided to start the race on 2nd Avenue.  We arrived around 9am after the city crews had spent hours trucking in snow to cover the street.  The race began promptly at 11am.  At the starting banquet the night before Dave drew bib number 5, so he was the 5th musher to begin his long, cold, sleepless journey to Whitehorse.
Even though I took my camera, I hardly took any pictures, so a HUGE thanks to my father-in-law, Ted, for taking as many photos as he did!  All of these photos are from him except a few of the Dawson ones.  Thank you SO much Ted!!!
While Dave prepped his sled, Ted, Lee (a very good friend of Dave's) and I dropped the dogs from the truck and fed them a warm meaty meal.  Throughout the race Dave keeps a small cooler in sled for thawing meat for the team.  When he reaches a campsite, he has a cooler prepared with a warm meal.  After that meal is served he lines the cooler with a trash compactor bag, puts pre-chopped frozen meat pieces in it, then fills it with hot water.  The bag gets rolled down and tied off, the lid placed on nice and snug, and the cooler is ready to go back in the sled until the next feeding.  Upon serving, he dishes out the meat water and tops it off with a scoop of high calorie kibble.  Other than eating snow while running or resting, that is the dogs only water intake.

2nd Avenue was filled with lots of  people, dogs, and dog trucks.  It was a hectic place...very stressful for many of the dogs, even the veterans.

The main vet check took place a week before the race started, but the vets came by to re-check all the dogs just before the race.  The vet team is spread out at every checkpoint along the race route checking every dog as soon as they arrive and often before they leave again.
This is Dave's good friend Lee.  He was extremely helpful to Ted and I because he has handled for Dave many, many times before.  And occasionally solo!!!
Dave and I
Discussing details once again :)
This lovely woman from Hawaii won the bid to ride in Dave's tag sled.  It had been a dream of hers that was finally fulfilled.  I found out, kind of last minute, that I was going to be the tag sled driver!  Boy was that fun!  It was supposed to be just for the first two miles of the race, and it did stay that way for the rider, but I actually rode on the tag sled for the first ~35 miles of the race.  It was an option given to the mushers by the judges the day before the race started because of the extremely icy trail conditions.  It was thought that with the little bit of extra weight in the sled and an extra brake to slow and control the team it would be helpful in the first section to prevent injuries.  The first 20 miles of the race was on the Chena River and much of that was sheer ice.  In those conditions it is extremely hard to control your sled and dog team which could cause unnecessary injuries.  So Dave had me stay with him to add extra weight behind the team and to have an extra brake to keep them at a reasonable pace.
Bobber and Bashful are indeed nervous with everything going on.
Healy is letting everyone know she is ready to roll!
It's finally time to harness and booty the dogs.

Me and Yukon :)
Attaching the dogs to the gang line.
Ready to go!
At the start line Dave walks up to check the team for the final time and to let the leaders know it's showtime.
And, we're off!
After all the teams left downtown, Ted managed to load the truck up and navigate his way out of the chaotic town with little instruction from Lee and I.  What a trooper!  Ted is highly adaptable, roadtrip savvy, and always in a good mood...he was an awesome partner.  And for never being in a similar situation he took to it with the ease of a professional.  After leaving town he drove 30 miles out to the Two Rivers community and hung out with his nephew's wife and waited for us to come down Pleasant Valley Road.  The above picture was taken just before Dave and I came through, there are 4 teams on the road in the photo.
Here come Dave and I!

My joyous ride ended just around the corner at the Pleasant Valley Store.  I stood on the brake of Dave's sled while he unhooked the rope that connected to my tag sled.
Dopey and Grumpy and the rest of the team patiently waited.
The first checkpoint was in the Chena Hot Springs Recreation Area.  By the time Dave arrived it was dark so we didn't take any pictures.  While Dave got in a 2 hour nap, I waited at the front of the team to make sure there were no fights or any mishaps.  The handlers are not allowed to ever speak to the dogs or touch them except when you are leading them to and from a campsite.  So, I sat and watched.  If something were to happen that would cause harm to any dog, then any handler is allowed to step in and help out.  The continuous theme for the trip was "hurry up and wait, then watch."
Checkpoint #2...101.  Which translates to Mile 101 on the Steese Highway.  We left the Two Rivers checkpoint about midnight, stopped at cousin Leslie's house to upload a few pictures and got to the 101 checkpoint about 5am.  Dave had actually arrived 30 minutes before us.

 In this little building volunteers had the wood stove going for heat and kept a constant supply of hot water, coffee, and food for the mushers and the handlers.  Because it was very small no one except the mushers were allowed to hang out in there.
The Checkers....volunteers who kept watch constantly for arriving mushers, checked mushers into the checkpoint along with checking for all the mandatory gear in their sleds, delivered straw and pre-packaged re-supply bags to the musher's campsite, provided wake up calls for mushers, etc.

That little shack here was available space for the mushers to catch a nap.
 Everything in this area was encrusted with ice sometimes almost 2 inches thick.
 Checkpoint #3...Central.
Central is a small town about 125 miles north and east of Fairbanks.  For us it was about a twenty minute drive from the 101 checkpoint.  You have to cross over Eagle Summit which can be a bit of a hassle sometimes.  The wind scours the treeless hills and can create monstrous drifts in minutes.  For Dave, it was a grueling 33 mile sled ride up and over Eagle Summit down into Central.  Mushers have broken bones and sleds coming down from Eagle Summit in the past.  A lot of mushers unhook the tug lines of all the dogs except the leaders so they cannot pull the sled as much and I have heard of some mushers intentionally turning their sled over on its side in order to slow the team and avoid injuries.
 All the drop bags mushers pre-packaged and shipped out prior to the race.  They contain dog food of various kinds in case the dogs get tired of eating a particular food and you need something else to offer, trail snacks for the dogs, extra dog jackets, blankets, and booties, mushers food and clothing, foot ointment and wrist wraps for the dogs, and whatever else they might need along the way.
 Waiting :)
Here comes a musher!  But it's not Dave :(  Good looking team though.
A frosty, exhausted musher describes his adventure over Eagle Summit.
Another good looking team coming through.
Yea!  Dave is arriving!
Look at that good dog, Bobber, in the swing position doing such a great job!  He is swinging wide and pulling the rest of the team around the corner.
The Checkers are checking Dave's sled for the mandatory gear....sleeping bag, cooker, ax.

I am holding the leaders in place while they wait.  Since the 33 miles from the 101 checkpoint was relatively smooth Dave decided to just grab his re-supply items and a bail of straw to rest down the trail somewhere.
Dave organizing some gear while I hold the sled brake.
Line of dog trucks at Circle.
Checkpoint #4, Circle City...the last checkpoint on the road system in Alaska.
Circle is 160 northeast of Fairbanks.  It was about 74 miles from Central for Dave, but about a 30 mile drive for Ted and I.  Although because of the windy road it took about an hour to get there.  Once we got there, we got some much needed sleep.  We had gotten an hour nap here or there a only few times since the start of the race, over 48 hours ago.  The local school allowed handlers, volunteers and media people to use their gymnasium for sleeping and they had showers available for use also.
The Checkers at Circle
The firehall was used by mushers and volunteers.
Trail report
Chef Roddey was volunteering from PA for the 2nd year in a row.  He fixed amazing fresh food to order and had lots of baked goods available.  What a treat for all!
Folks talking, eating and sleeping at one table.  At the other table, the media team was updating websites and facebook constantly with pictures and stories.

Dave tending to his team at Circle.
Bashful and Sleepy resting comfortably.  Temps stayed between 5 above and 5 below while we were in Circle...very comfortable for the dogs :)
Happy was dropped from the team at Circle and joined Sheldon and us in the truck.  She was just not enjoying herself enough and seemed to be losing stamina during the last 50 miles before reaching Circle.
After a good 5 hour break the Dalton Gang was ready to go again.  I helped lead them through the parking area and over to the Checkers and the trail heading to Eagle.

After cleaning the campsite and organizing the truck we began our long journey to Dawson City, Canada, 1,000 miles on the road system.
Back to Central for gas, up and over Eagle Summit where the wind was whipping (as you can see from the picture), past Mile 101 checkpoint, then a brief stop at Lee's house to drop supplies that would not be needed during the second leg of the trip, and we also got to drop the two dogs with Lee.  He took them back to Healy the following day.  After Lee's house, we stopped in Fairbanks for a few supplies then headed to Canada.  Timing was crucial and every year it is a little bit different.  We first had to calculate when Dave would arrive in Dawson because we needed to be there before him in order to set up a camp for the dogs to stay in for the mandatory 36 hour layover.  Setting up camp was a process in itself and needed to be done in the daylight especially for us, the newbies.  This year because of the lack of snow in some areas the trail was re-routed and 50 miles was shaved off the normal route between Eagle, AK, and Dawson City.  That meant Dave would arrive about 8 hours sooner.  We figured the earliest he could have arrive was ~48 hours from when he left Circle which was around noon on a Tuesday.  So he could have been there by Thursday around noon.  Driving through Canada also presented a challenge because many of the Canadian gas stations do not have pay at the pump.  So it's best if you can plan to use them during daytime business hours otherwise you are forced to wait at the pump. We left Circle around 2pm and figured we needed to be in Dawson by the next afternoon in order to set up camp in the daylight to be ready for Dave's arrival early the next day.  So we were forced to drive through the night and hope for the best as far as gas was concerned.  We did end up having to sleep for an hour at one pump until it opened, so it wasn't too bad.