Monday, February 15, 2010

Random thoughts on Handlers, Volunteers & Sponsors

The past few weeks have been very busy. The last weekend of Jan. began the Willow Winter Carnival. Part of that weekend is the running of the Don Bowers 200 sled dog race. My friend Karen Ramstead, who runs pure bred Siberians, asked if I would be her handler. Of course, I said yes! HA-little did I know. On friday, we went to the Willow Community Center for the start. I had asked a friend with teenage children who are also mushers, to help drop and harness dogs, so that chore was nicely handled. Many thanks to them: Ruthann, Miranda, Grayson and Skipper.

After harnessing and putting on doggie boots, the dogs were placed on the gangline. I would handle the leaders with my friend, Mike Dillingham. We would walk the dogs to the start line and await the count down. Karen tells handlers that when the count gets to 10, let go of the lines. the team is then her responsibility. So we did that----and the team took off like a shot! Those holding the sled and Karen on the brake could not hold them back! So they left.  :)

Ok, with the team on their way we still had chores to do. Friends Mike and Keith drove Karen's dog truck back to my house. Meanwhile, Mary and GG and I drove to Joe's cabin, the halfway point, to leave Karen's drop bags and straw. We also took stuff for another musher who didn't have a handler. My little blazer was packed full. After the drop, we went back to my home for food. 

The next day, Keith and I returned to Joe's cabin about 9:30 am. The drive there was beautiful with a setting wolf moon over Kashwitna Lake and a pink Denali ahead with the rising sun.
Karen was up and taking care of dogs when we arrived. There was nothing we could do but talk to her. We did take one dropped dog, See, and put her in the car to wait for us. See was not very happy about that. She would spend all day sulking in her dog box, but she would be fine. She perked right up when Karen got back later.

At the checkpoint, Karen repacked her sled, gave the dogs treats and generally got ready to go. As handlers, we waited for her to leave and then took her drop bags to the car and drove back to Willow.

Karen's Siberians rest while waiting to hit the trail again.

Recognizing snack time, the dogs anticipate a treat. They had a full meal hours earlier. A frozen fish would provide extra protein and water for hydration.
Rocket does the Rocket dance begging for a fish!

After Karen hits the trail, Keith and I return to Willow where I will wait until around midnight to go back to the Willow Community Center and await the arrival of the North Wapiti team.

The team arrives just after 1 am. I help where I can: taking a dog from the basket and hooking him to the truck, getting out drop chains and helping move the rest of the team from the gangline to the truck, removing booties and harnesses, passing out a warm broth with meat, scooping poop and bringing dogs to Karen who loads them in the truck. Karen then goes inside to get some food herself. We finally get back to my house about 2 am. Karen needs more food for herself and at 3 am we drop dogs for a final time before heading to bed around 3:30. I think what people don't understand  is that handlers work hard, enjoy sleep deprivation as much as a musher and are generally ignored by everyone but the musher. I think most do it as a learning experience and of course, just to be around the dogs.
You can see more photos of Karen and her team:

 This race was a quick one, but handlers on the Yukon Quest ( face days of this same kind of routine, besides driving a dog truck to checkpoints on the road system. When the race leaves Fairbanks, as it did this year, handlers must get to the Mile 101 checkpoint before the mushers. Once the mushers leave that checkpoint, handlers usually haul butt down the Alaska highway to Whitehorse and on up to Dawson City. 

Inuksuk trail maker on the Yukon River at Dawson

There they build a tent city for dogs and mushers. With tarps strung to trees like sails to the mast, homes are made for dog teams. Arctic tents with wood stoves spring up next for handlers and mushers. Firepits burn for warmth, cooking dog food and a gathering place outside. The teams will have a mandatory 36 hour layover here. Handlers are allowed to help at this point and mushers rely on them a great deal. This is when mushers catch up on sleep, repair equipment, eat a decent meal and take a bath! Thanks to the handlers, who usually stay in the tents, mushers know the dogs will be fine. Handlers will feed them on a schedule, walk them and clean up after them.

Lance Mackey's site in the 2008 Quest. A quiet place for dogs and people. When the musher and team leaves, handlers will remove the tents and clean the site. Then they will drive probably to Pelly or Carmacks to wait for the team again. Handlers clean up in each checkpoint on the road system if a team beds down there. The only place tents are allowed is in Dawson.

Lance feeds his dogs at the Braeburn Checkpoint while Larry watches his every move. Larry then leads the team out on the trail again. Lance's wife Tonya cleans up the site Lance and the team have just left. Handlers are the unsung heros of this sport and everyone owes them a huge thank you. The teams could not do what they need to do with out handlers. So, I for one, offer my thanks.

After Karen's Don Bowers run and getting to bed at 3:30 am, both of us got up and were back to the Community Center by 8:45 am. We even dropped dogs before we left.  Karen is such a good sport and agreed to be a timer for the women's race that was part of the Winter Carnival. This was a five mile race with two classes...women under 47 and the AARP class for women over 47. I had planned to run my team, but with the lack of sleep decided it was not in their best interest. So, Vern Halter made me the race marshall. LOL! Thanks to Bonnie Church, my job was really easy. I made sure everyone signed up, made the musher meeting and then announced times to the race as the teams prepared. It was really a fun race of five miles. Everyone finished in good time. And even though it was a short race, it was volunteers who made it happen. Without the guys who smoothed and marked the trail,  the timers, the handlers and those who helped at the start chute, none of it would have happened. It's like this for every sled dog race. Those who do what they can so teams can get out and be on the trail. I thank all the volunteers time and again!

A head on pass in the Willow women's race. A team of Siberians finishing the race. Notice Denali sparkling in the background. These are the days we Alaskans love!

One last thank you. None of the races would be held without race sponsors. From individuals to small businesses, to corporate sponsors, all the money donated goes to make the race happen. Sponsors are needed in every size race. I try to make note of who sponsors and if it's a business I can use, I will. If I meet someone from that business, I make sure to thank them for helping keep this sport alive. Despite what some animal groups will say, I think MOST sled dogs lead better lives than any fat, backyard dog who is left out on a chain in boredom. Sled dogs are happy, noisy, boisterous creatures and I can't imagine a life without them. So, thanks to all of you who support this amazing sport and these wonderful dogs.
My wonderful pack, my constant companions, my reason for moving to Alaska.


  1. Beautiful photos, beautiful writing!

  2. Pictures and the commentary!!! Love em both!

  3. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story and pics! As usual you have done a great job.

  4. Thanks Donna for sharing the photos and the behind the scene story of dog handlers. Glad to read about your love of Alaska, its a magical place, especially if you have sled dogs! Dave in NC

  5. This was really neat, Donna. I learned some behind the scenes things about the Quest that I didn't know!

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great job, Donna----words and photos !!! Your writings are truly videos from the heart. You help us all be right there. Alaska, what a grand place to be.

  7. I so much enjoyed this posting. It was very nice to hear the story of a handler, helped me to understand yet another aspect of racing. Thanks for sharing!
    Jacqi Levy

  8. Fascinating! Great info. and pics.Thanks!