This blog can’t reach its end without some sort of homage to Dawson.
Dawson is a fun place. Having already written a blog in praise of Circle as my favourite checkpoint it’s hard now to rave too much about Dawson. But Dawson is different. It’s just a really great place. There is always something exciting going on there. In 2016 we had the scary night when Rob was stuck in a blizzard on American Summit. In 2017 we had the excitement of hotel room booking errors and the long trek along the river to cross to the dog camp via an ice bridge several miles down stream. This year there was no river crossing at all and the camp was to move elsewhere to make this year’s race memorable in a whole new set of ways.
Dawson is central to the race in many, many ways. Not only is it the middle point of the race it s the one thing that is pretty consistent whichever direction the race is going. Obviously it’s where the musher takes his long (currently 36 hour) mandatory rest. It’s a watershed in the race for the musher and team as it is a chance to pause and evaluate where they are and what their strategy might be for the rest of the race.
Most importantly though it is the first place after the start that the handlers are actually allowed to provide positive handling assistance. Once he arrives he hands the dogs over into the handler’s care while he rests and recuperates.
Before the musher arrives we have to essentially build a camp. This consists of three main elements. A long open ended shelter for the dogs with straw bedding. Our team is generally more spread out than some and therefore our shelter tends to be bigger. This year we laid out eight bales of straw in it for 13 dogs. The second thing the team needs is an outside area where the team can be lined out for feeding and from where they can be walked and carry out ablutions! The third thing is a tent for the handlers to sleep, keep warm and store items that we don’t necessarily want to freeze solid!
Essentially the main thing for the team during this 36 hour period with the handlers is for them to rest and sleep and prepare for the second half of the race. However there are some other important tasks that need to be done. A number of the dogs may require massage for light injuries of muscular stiffness. Paws and pads may need treatment and ointment for light cuts and abrasions. Feeding is very important in this time to make sure that the team gets all the nutrition it can to build it up for the second half of the race.
For the handlers this is most interesting and definitely the hardest part of the race. The dogs are normally camped across the river from the town, though this year the fact that the river has not frozen across has meant no ice bridge and therefore the camp has been moved out of the town to a Recreational Vehicle park on the road to Pelly Crossing. This brought some new challenges as our normal tried and tested mechanisms for creating the shelter by tying ropes between the trees were not available as there are just not the trees at the RV park. Consequently we had to improvise. We started with the idea of buying a tent. Then we developed that because it needed to be lower to retain the heat. Then we realised it just wasn’t long enough so eventually with a mixture of tent, ropes, 4”x2”wood “borrowed” from another team we created an extensive cosy and warm dog tent – the envy of the other teams.
Both locations mean though that it is important that one or more of the handlers is with the team all the time to make sure that they are safe, looked after and cared for. This generally means, depending on the time the musher arrives, either one or two cold nights for the handlers camping in the tent.
Rob arrived just before 9 on Friday morning. There was an eerie silence as he mushed in along the river.
After the usual interviews and dog greetings he ran along the river, out of town and down to the RV camp where James was ready to meet him.
I somehow managed to avoid spending a night at the camp in either 2016 or 2017 but this year it was definitely going to be my turn. As it turned out with the “shift rota” (that almost sounded like planning – which it wasn’t) it was Louise and I who spent the one full night in the camp. We were all there for part of the other night as Rob arrived in late in the evening though James covered a lot of the first night’s work.
Dawson is always cold. This year Louise and I spent a long short night trying to sleep in the tent with an outside temperature of over -40c. We have a wood stove in the tent but for a variety of reasons that is not very effective. We got it going at the start of the evening but it soon started to go out. With much blowing I got it going again, but the next time I opened the front door the tent filled with smoke. Louise was asleep I hoped, not asphyxiated!
The effort to keep the tent warm was extensive and consequently the wood quickly ran out and the stove went cold. Much of the night was spent curled up in my sleeping bag with the hood pulled over my head. The slight problem with that is that whilst it is lovely and warm the condensation tends to build up inside the hood and then freeze to fall on you later in the night when you least expect it.
This happened and I suddenly woke and it was 4:30am. Time to get up and feed the dogs and walk them starting a day of preparation for Rob’s departure that evening at 20:45. Louise went to fetch water and I looked up at the sky to see a light but nonetheless spectacular aurora. I had no camera to capture it. It was a beautiful metaphor for my third Yukon Quest. It was subtle, beautiful, different and, somehow, I was stood in the camp in a little bit of a bubble enjoying it all by myself.
Louise came back with water and we fed the team and gave every one a short walk around the dog yard. Soon I was warm and the memory of the long cold night and the beauty of the aurora was gone. The race moves on. We move on.
Another important role the handlers fulfil in Dawson is to get the Musher’s sled dry. That is done by taking it and the contents to the Royal Canadian Military Police warehouse halfway between the centre of Dawson and the RV camp where the dog park was this year. James and I had taken it there on the morning after Rob arrived and as Louise and I finished feeding and walking they arrived back with the sled and to relieve us. I was almost sad to leave but with the temperature at -40c and breakfast calling I managed to drag myself away.
Dawson is generally cold for the 36 lay over. This year it seemed particularly so. It affected all of us, the experienced and the less so.
Soon it was time for Rob to leave. A bit like at the start the restart seemed a bit of a rush but he got away OK just a couple of minutes after his 36 hour mandatory rest period ende. Once he was gone we checked the camp, secured everything that needed to be and resolved to return on Sunday.
We got back into town just in time to get some food and drink and for the whole team to participate in the famous Sourtoe Cocktail challenge. Essentially drink the cocktail with an old severed toe in it letting the toe touch your lips. It has to be done!
On Sunday we got up a little later, breakfasted and headed to camp and cleared up. I enjoy clearing camp. There is some strange sense of satisfaction in a job done. Camp created, dogs cared for, musher dispatched and camp restored to its original state.
In the afternoon I wrote blog material and had a few beers. Undoubtedly the most relaxing half day of the whole race.
Dawson is a great essential part of the Yukon Quest. As much as Circle before it is one of the most memorable and most enjoyable elements of the race. I was sad to leave this year.