First, there’s the noise. You hear it as you approach, the barking, the whining, the howling, the yipping. It gets louder and louder as you approach the staging area. Then there’s the smell, hair and dog food and poop and straw. Then, there’s the buzz, the excitement, the activity. A musher lays out harnesses in a very specific order on the dirty snow. “These dogs aren’t wearing name tags,” says the vet. “We got an exemption,” the musher replies, “they have their names on the harnesses.” “Okay, we just don’t want you to get in trouble with the race marshall.”
The dogs are clipped on to cables that are anchored on to pickup trucks, trailers. They paw at the snow, they scratch and whine, some of them nose at piles of kibble. Everyone is busy. Support crew members sort piles of gear, dog wranglers tend to the affections of their four legged charges, volunteers in orange vests herd spectators away from the race track, behind the chain link fence that separates the starting chute from the very enthusiastic crowds.
On the Takhini River, just an hour or so after the last team leaves the gate, I talk to a local woman who lives just beyond the banks. We are watching the teams race by, silhouettes against the white snow. “There’s noise every year about the dogs, about the treatment of the dogs, but you can see how much they love to run.” I did see it. The teams strain and yap at the starting line, they jump and squeal, leaping from the ground as much as their restraints allow. And then, when the counter yells “MUSH!” they are released and they fly past, a blur of fur and crazed eyeballs, their alpha human behind, a bulky mass of weatherproofing and ruddy cheeks. Snow flies from the bootied paws of the team and they are gone, out of sight in no time. “I was at the start line,” I said, “they were aching to run, you could see it.”
A few days later, I stand on the brake of my own sled, four howling dogs in front of me, straining at the lead. I’m third in line out of five in our group. When our guide, Jocelyn, a former Yukon Quest competitor who now guides tours at Sky High Wilderness Ranch, tells her team to run, mine follows, with no need for me to tell them so. We head down a slight incline and out on to the frozen surface of Fish Lake. The day is bright, the sky is so blue, the snow is so clean. The lake is dead flat and wide open and the only wind is from the speed of the dogs.
The Yukon Quest is 1000 miles and the mushers carry all their gear — food for the dogs, their own food, their winter survival kit,, everything. They run a team of 14 dogs over wicked rough terrain through unpredictable and sometimes dangerous weather. The sleds are heavy, the dogs are strong, and the mushers, well, I can’t help but wonder if they’re more than a little bit crazy. I have an empty sled, four dogs, and while it’s not completely free from risk, I’m hardly doing something bold. But while sliding across that open space under the blue sky, this thought crosses my mind: I get it.