For The Handlers

This is a wonderful article from the official Yukon Quest website describing the duties of the handlers during the Dawson City layover:

Everyone knows the musher’s job: To get a healthy, happy dog team across the finish line. But what about the support teams that follow along?

In the Yukon Quest, unlike in the Iditarod, mushers are permitted to have a handler (or several handlers) moving from checkpoint to checkpoint in the dog truck. The rules allow them to help out in several very specific ways. One of Kristy Berington’s handlers, Leon Mensch, took a few minutes out from his duties to sit down with the Quest team and explain what, exactly, a handler does.

Handlers visit every checkpoint with road access – from Two Rivers, Mile 101, Central and Circle, on the Alaska side, to Dawson City, Pelly Crossing, Carmacks and Braeburn on the Yukon side. In most of those places, the routine is the same: The handler drives to the checkpoint and waits for the musher to arrive. They scout out the locations of water, fuel, food – all the things the musher will need to care for their team. They’re permitted to help the musher lead the team to their campsite in the dog yard, and then they stand back and wait. They’re not allowed to be in the dog yard at the same time as the musher. “Most of the time it’s just watching her from a distance,” says Mensch.

After the musher hits the trail again, it’s clean-up time. “Rake the straw, shovel the poop,” says Mensch. The handler packs up the drop bags that the musher has access to at the checkpoint and puts them on the truck. And then? “Drive on to the next checkpoint and do the same thing all over again.”

Dawson City is the exception to that routine. It’s the busiest part of a handler’s race, and for many it’s also the best part. “That’s the highlight,” says Mensch. “The hardest part of the other checkpoints is not getting to take care of the dogs. When I see them come up the trail, I want to drop to my knees and pet them and hug them and stuff, and I’m not allowed to do that.” But in Dawson, during the 36-hour layover, the mushers rest in town while the handlers camp out and take full charge of the dogs. “We get to do anything we want with the dogs, any massages they need, cleaning up after them, feeding them, walking them after giving them a nice long rest.”

Handlers have a tough job. They snatch a few hours of sleep here and there over the duration of the race, usually sitting upright in the cab of the dog truck, and they spend long hours waiting around checkpoint burn barrels, trying to stay warm while they wait for their team. “Most people probably wouldn’t consider this fun,” says Mensch. “But if you’re into dog mushing and dogs, this is fun. Just being involved in the race, helping out a friend to get through the race… And it’s definitely exciting. How often do you get to drive this part of the world in February and see what we’re seeing?”

Dalton Gang Handers 2012

Handler Lee Lowery

Handler JC Campione

Handler Nina