SB Nation

Eva Holland | March 6, 2013

No sleep ‘til Fairbanks

Following the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dog sled race

Brent Sass was ready. His sled bag was loaded, and his dogs were screaming to run, flinging themselves forward against their harnesses, rearing into the air, barking and crying for the trail ahead.

Sass, a veteran 33-year-old dog musher, tall and lean with a dark ponytail and scruffy beard, moved up and down the line, leaning in close and murmuring a few final words to each animal. On either side of him, a handful of photographers and videographers in snow pants and heavy winter coveralls sprawled in the snow to get their shots; fans with tiny point-and-shoots were scattered around the mouth of the steep, narrow chute that would lead Sass’ team down onto the frozen Yukon River, and a checkpoint volunteer in a reflective safety vest stood nearby, pen poised over a clipboard. The noise of the dogs increased as Sass returned to his sled, stood on the runners, and waited as the final seconds ticked down. Then he pulled up his snow hook and was gone.

He was the fourth musher to depart Dawson City, the halfway point of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race, after a mandatory 40-hour layover. Ahead of him, his rivals were already racing downriver towards the Alaska-Yukon border; their dogs had played out the same frantic scene at their appointed hours earlier that day.

The Yukon Quest turned 30 years old this year. Like the more famous Iditarod, mushing’s marquee event, which takes place over the first two weeks of March, it’s a 1,000-mile race with a route inspired by history. The Quest runs from Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, Alaska – or from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, in alternate years – every February, loosely following the iconic Yukon River, “the highway of the North,” for much of the way. The packed-snow trail passes through boreal forest and treeless alpine, crosses mountain summits and follows frozen creeks and rivers. Along the way, it dekes into a handful of remote Yukon and Alaskan villages and roadhouses, where clusters of residents plant homemade signs offering encouragement in the snow.

Twenty-six racers had left Whitehorse six days earlier, vying for their share of the $100,000 purse, and for the 20 teams that remained in the race after the Dawson City layover, there were 500 miles yet to go. For at least four or five more days and nights, the mushers and their dogs would run the frozen trail, pausing for feedings, sleeping in two-hour catnaps (if at all), watching the Northern Lights give way to daylight and reclaim the sky again hours later.

At the same time, a second, parallel race was playing out. The “handlers” for each team were wives and husbands and siblings and friends, mostly, or aspiring racers working, apprentice-style, for room and board and the chance to run borrowed dogs. They trailed the mushers from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, cleaning up after the dog teams and collecting unused supplies, ready to retrieve the musher and the team itself if injury or illness struck. For nearly two weeks, they would follow along by road, snoozing in idling pickups at roadside pullouts, slurping gas station coffee and spending sleepless hours waiting at checkpoints for their mushers to appear. For them, the race offered its own peculiar feat of endurance: a slow motion, sleep-deprived ultra-marathon.

Dawson City, Yukon, Feb. 7

Moments after Sass and his team disappeared down the start chute, the small crowd that had watched him go drifted away. They left in pairs and groups of three or four, clomping in parkas and big winter boots through the snowed-in government campground that served as the Dawson City dog yard during the week that the Quest rolled through. As they went, they passed shoveled-out tent sites and homemade tarp shelters strung from trees, filled with loose straw and snoozing, twitching huskies. The dogs had been riotous at the start chute, but here they were noiseless, and the groaning, roaring trucks the handlers drove were banned from the site to let the animals sleep; the silence was nearly complete. Here and there, the smell of fresh dog shit lingered for a few moments before being stifled by the cold air. Every time one of the resident ravens launched itself off a tree branch and flew overhead, its wing beats seemed to echo through the campground.

In long-distance dogsled racing, the handler is his musher’s safety net and clean-up crew.

Each campsite was marked with a numbered paper plate stapled to a narrow wooden stake driven into the snow, and at one – No. 6 – there was no team, just an older, bearded man sweeping a few last wisps of straw into a black plastic trash bag. This was the designated resting site for four-time Yukon Quest champion Lance Mackey and his team, but Mackey, also a four-time Iditarod winner, had scratched mysteriously that morning upon arrival in Dawson City. Now only his handler remained, cleaning up the last remnants of this year’s failed campaign.

At paper plate No. 18, Josh Horst and Steve Stoller settled in to wait, icicles forming in their beards. They were the handlers for Brent Sass, and they wouldn’t begin to break up his camp until an hour or two after he’d left, once they were sure he was well on his way to Eagle, the fly-in village over the Alaskan border, and wouldn’t need to turn back. Once they’d closed up his resupply bags, Sass would not be allowed to re-open them.

Peter Reuter in the Whitehorse dog yard before the race start

They were plenty used to waiting. In long-distance dogsled racing, the handler is his musher’s safety net and clean-up crew. On the Yukon Quest, where the race checkpoints often intersect with the Yukon and Alaskan road networks, the handlers trail the dog teams in aging pickup trucks with plywood kennels built into the truck beds. The trucks are empty to start with, but they fill up with dogs dropped from their teams (due to illness or injury, or even a twist in a musher’s strategy) and leftover resupply bags along the way. The handlers stare down mechanical failure (probable), exhaustion (expected) and dangerous winter driving conditions (inevitable) to meet their mushers at each rest stop. They come armed with weather reports, trail conditions, updates on the positions of rival dog teams – anything that is public information is fair game to share with their racer. After their team has moved on down the trail, the handlers shovel shit and scoop up soiled straw before driving on to the next checkpoint to do it all over again.

Like Sass, Horst and Stoller were veterans of the trail. Stoller was a Yukon Quest fixture, a perpetually smiling class clown who flies himself in from the Lower 48 for the event each year. Horst, 36, a lean blond who makes his living solving logistical problems for work crews in the Alaskan backcountry, had known Sass since before either of them got into dog mushing. The pair, part of the same circle of outdoorsy 20-somethings in Fairbanks, had signed up as first-time volunteers together back in 2004; from there, Sass got hooked on mushing and Horst jumped hip-deep into the Quest’s logistics team. By the time the 2012 race came around, Sass was a five-time Quest finisher, a fan favorite, and Horst was the race manager. Horst is a recreational musher – he has four of Sass’ “hand-me-down” dogs at home, and hooks them up to a small sled for short runs around Fairbanks – but he has no big-time racing aspirations. He and Stoller were here out of friendship, and for the quirky, uncomfortable, chilly joys of the trail.

At the next campsite over, Robin Berkowitz was breaking camp. Her musher and husband, Jake Berkowitz, had departed Dawson City just two and a half hours ahead of Brent Sass. Horst watched her for a minute, and then hollered, gesturing to his makeshift tarp tent, “If you want to come over here and take some notes, that’s cool.” Robin laughed and waved. A few minutes later, a pair of rookie handlers did come over to inspect the Sass team’s rig, comparing it to their own set-up and pondering ways to improve next time around.

they really only have each other to rely on – whether for a bit of advice, a tow out of a snow-filled ditch, or a shot of whisky and a shoulder to sleep on

You might expect rivalries between handlers, but instead, according to Horst, everybody tries to help each other out. That’s another way that the handlers’ Quest parallels the true race: Out on the trail, the rules state that only a musher can help another musher; outside assistance results in disqualification. There are no rules governing who helps the handlers, but as they travel the backroads of the Yukon and Alaska, they really only have each other to rely on – whether for a bit of advice, a tow out of a snow-filled ditch, or a shot of whisky and a shoulder to sleep on. “The first couple of times I was involved in race logistics,” Horst remembers, “Jodi Bailey, Tonya Mackey, Tamra Reynolds – they were like these seasoned handlers. I went to them for advice even as a checkpoint manager.” Years later, he adds, “it’s kind of cool becoming one of those people.”

Down at paper plate No. 5, Cody Strathe and his two handlers – Peter Reuter, an aspiring racer, and Strathe’s wife, Quest veteran Paige Drobny – were walking their dogs one and two at a time, leading them up and down the campground’s central lane to let them stretch their legs and pee before returning them to their straw-filled shelter. A volunteer who’d served for years as a veterinary assistant lurked nearby holding a long forked stick. Every time a new dog emerged from the straw, she loaded a fresh specimen cup into the stick’s fork, reached out with practiced timing and collected a urine sample from the animal; even canine athletes are tested for doping these days.

Yukon Quest mushers come in an array of shapes and sizes; they don’t all look the stereotypical part of the rugged, lone bushman, bearded and beflanneled. But Peter Reuter, Strathe’s handler, looks as though he was born to drive a dogsled. On the trail, his heavy beard and weathered face and hands had volunteers and media assuming he was one of the competitors. And fair enough: He started running dogs in 1985, in Crested Butte, Colo., and hasn’t stopped since. Mushing was a hobby for two decades – Reuter calls his early teams “Pete’s camping dogs” – but lately, he’s had the racing bug. He came up to Alaska from his home in the Adirondacks during the 2012 Iditarod season, searching for a handling gig that would let him race his kennel’s B-team when he wasn’t helping out his A-team musher. For large kennels with dogs to spare, that’s the carrot dangled in front of experienced handlers who don’t have racing dogs of their own; the chance to compete in the three required mid-distance races that qualify a musher for the Yukon Quest or Iditarod.

Reuter first met Strathe and Drobny last summer. After Drobny’s successful rookie outing in the 2012 Quest, the couple was looking to bring on some outside help as they expanded their kennel’s racing program. In 2013, Strathe would be tackling the Quest while Drobny took on her first Iditarod. The pair could offer Reuter plenty of training time with the dogs, but with both of them racing, there wouldn’t be enough bodies to field a third competitive team. Reuter needed to race, and as an experienced hand, he had options; in the end, he decided to go with another kennel.

The dogs surged forward, mowing Reuter down. He tore his MCL and his meniscus.

In the fall, he’d signed up for his three qualifiers; assuming all went well, he was on track for a 2014 Quest or Iditarod campaign. But the first two races were both cancelled due to a lack of snow. Then, on a training day in late December, before the third qualifier, Reuter went out with a team of 19 dogs. That’s a lot of power (Quest mushers run with a maximum of 14 dogs, and a minimum of 6), and Reuter had a second helper riding on a skidoo hooked behind his sled; the machine provided enough drag to slow the team down to a manageable speed. On an icy stretch of trail, the dogs got tangled, and as Reuter stepped off the runners and went forward to straighten them out, there was a misunderstanding with the second man, who unhooked the dogsled from the snowmobile. The dogs surged forward, mowing Reuter down. He tore his MCL and his meniscus.

His dream of qualifying for the Iditarod was shot for the year, but he still had a chance to learn more about the realities of long-distance racing, even with a limp slowing him down. He thought back to the young racing couple that he’d met that past summer. “Just call Cody and Paige,” his wife had said over the phone from upstate New York. So here he was.

Whitehorse, Yukon, to Dawson City, Yukon, Feb. 2 to 8

Arctic Oven tent at Brent Sass' Dawson campground

The handlers had spent the first three or four days of the race sitting and waiting, mostly, at the three official checkpoints between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Each one was an easy highway drive from the next, but what the truck might cover in an hour or two could take a dog team 12 hours or more. So they drove in short bursts, and waited in long stretches. At Braeburn Lodge, the handlers crammed into the small roadside restaurant – famous for its pie-sized cinnamon buns – that doubled as the checkpoint, and slept propped up in the cabs of their pickups. At Carmacks and Pelly Crossing, two small Yukon First Nations communities, they spread Therm-A-Rests and sleeping bags on the floors of the village rec centers for a few hours’ sleep, snoring in a communal stew of damp winter gear and unshowered bodies, and bought home-cooked meals provided by local residents: moose lasagna, hamburger soup with bannock, bacon and eggs.

Handlers sleeping in Pelly Crossing checkpoint

In Dawson City, the waiting ended and the real work began. It was a 200-mile run to Dawson from Pelly, the nearest checkpoint, and the mushers could spend 36 to 48 hours covering that stretch of trail. The handlers, meanwhile, drove ahead to Dawson, grabbed their first showers in days, changed into fresh long johns and began to set up camp for their incoming teams. The long, low tarp structures they built to shelter the dogs from blowing snow and icy winds were strung up in a variety of styles: The old hands had their routines down, while others fumbled in the frozen air, tying and untying knots with numb fingers. One rookie handler had thought ahead: He’d practiced building his shelter three or four times in his backyard before leaving home.

Mushers were permitted to stay in hotel rooms during the Dawson City layover, but most teams put up a human tent, too – usually the distinctive orange dome of the Arctic Oven, the Alaskan-made tent of choice for extreme cold-weather campers, equipped with a small, collapsible stove. That way, once the teams arrived, someone – whether musher or handler – could be with the dogs around the clock, ready for feedings, walks, vet checks, or to break up any fights that might be brewing in the shelters where the dogs snoozed through the long layover.

“Dawson is kind of the salvation” for handlers, says Reuter. At earlier checkpoints, the musher must handle his team solo; the handler is there only to clean up the campsite after the team has moved on. So Dawson is the only point on the trail where they get to interact closely with the race dogs – which, for handlers who are aiming to race their own teams, is really the point.

Some mushers like to be hands-on all the time, and stay in the dog yard themselves, but others leave their handlers in charge and retreat, crossing a plowed ice road across the frozen river to downtown Dawson. There, bow-tied dealers shuffle decks of cards in Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest gambling hall, tourists pay a premium to swallow gimmicky cocktails bobbing with a severed, frostbitten human toe, and The Pit – a dimly lit dive where just about anything goes – awaits.

A haze of marijuana smoke hovers outside the bar’s back door – and sometimes out front, too.

The Pit is where mushers, handlers, veterinarians, media and race officials set their responsibilities aside for an evening or two, and mingle on purely human terms. A former Quest champion trash-talks a reporter over the sagging pool table, where a second, stained 6 ball stands in for the missing black 8, and one drunk handler grinds herself up against the wall, temporarily lacking a dance partner, AC/DC keeping time. The locals lean into their drinks at the tables in the center of the room while knots of Quest folk stand around the fringes of the bar and whisper the latest trail gossip in each other’s ears. A haze of marijuana smoke hovers outside the bar’s back door – and sometimes out front, too. Steve Stoller, Brent Sass’ handler, typically arrives with a waist-high blow-up doll named Dolly under his arm. She stands on the sidelines while the drinks flow through to closing time, impassively watching the scene.

The racers have a day and a half to rest before they return to the trail, but not all of them are inclined to spend it sleeping.

Dawson City, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, Feb. 9

Dany Jette holding Brian Wilmshurst's team back at the start line in Whitehorse

For the racers, Dawson City is the calm – or, just as often, the debauchery – before the storm. From the old Gold Rush town the trail leads them down the frozen Yukon River, over the Canada-U.S. border and across a broad, 300-mile swath of roadless, wild terrain. The stretch is known for its unforgiving cold, high winds, and severe isolation. During the 2011 Quest, temperatures on the trail between Eagle and Circle City plunged to 50 below, not including the wind-chill factor, and mushers made their way through whiteout conditions from one reflective-painted trail marker to the next, completely dependent on the thin beams of their headlamps to see them through.

temperatures on the trail between Eagle and Circle City plunged to 50 below, not including the wind-chill factor

The handlers and race personnel, meanwhile, face their own odyssey. In winter, the Yukon road network dead-ends in Dawson City, and so while a skeleton force of veterinarians and officials flies west across the border into Eagle to meet the teams coming through, the bulk of the race support crews face a long drive back south to the starting point in Whitehorse, then northwest along the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, and north again up the treacherous Steese Highway to Circle City. In optimal driving conditions, with dry roads and clear skies, it’s a 20-hour trip. Melissa Atkinson, wife and handler to second-time Quest racer Brian Wilmshurst, did not enjoy optimal conditions this year.

Horst and Stoller clean up Sass' Dawson dog enclosure

Atkinson is a petite brunette who’s dwarfed by her tall, big-haired musher husband – the young pair got married not long after Wilmshurst’s successful first Quest run, in 2012. They live a few miles outside Dawson City with more than 30 dogs, and are the hometown favorites when the race passes through town. On Saturday, Feb. 9, she and a second handler, 23-year-old musher Dany Jetté, an elfin blond newly arrived in the North from Quebec, left her home in Dawson City and headed south. For the first few hours, the driving was fine. Then, in Whitehorse, they turned west, onto the Alaska Highway, and a curtain of snow and wind came down on them. By the time they’d reached the Yukon community of Haines Junction, just 100 miles from the capital, they were driving through a whiteout. They’d been convoying with another group of handlers, rookie Rob Cooke’s crew, and Atkinson followed the tracks left by the first truck as the road drifted in around them. Then the Cooke team gave up and turned back, and Atkinson’s truck took the full brunt of the storm: swirling snow, zero visibility. “I’ve driven in lots of snow storms,” she says, “but this was crazy.”

Eventually she and Jetté were forced to turn around, too. They made it back to the Junction and parked for a few hours in a motel parking lot. They’d been taking turns: One slept curled up in the back seat of the crew cab, and the other reclined on the bench seat up front. It wasn’t too bad apart from the seatbelts digging into their kidneys. They were back on the road by 6 a.m., rolling through the darkness following a set of fresh tracks through the low drifts. They passed one transport truck stuck in the snow, and then a second, looked at each other and thought: “We probably shouldn’t be here.” But they hadn’t been able to get online and check the location of Wilmshurst’s SPOT, a GPS tracking device carried by every musher, in nearly 20 hours, and they had no idea how much progress he’d made; they kept driving. By lunchtime, they’d cleared Customs and were forging towards Fairbanks and the Steese Highway north to Circle.

Fairbanks, Alaska, to Circle City, Alaska, Feb. 9 to 10

Brian Wilmshurst and Melissa Atkinson at the start line in Whitehorse.
Photo credit: Yukon Quest / Alistair Maitland Photography

Eagle Summit is a sheer, wind-scoured dome, a caribou-studded moonscape of ice and blowing snow that lies near the 850-mile mark of the race. In winter, it’s as empty and unforgiving a landscape as you’ll see on Earth – though if the wind is blowing you won’t see much at all – and its reputation looms over the mushers and their handlers every year. (“I’m always worried about the summit,” says Atkinson.) In 2006, six racers and their teams were lost up there in a storm, and four-time champion Hans Gatt, who made it off the summit and into the next checkpoint, was reported to have told the volunteers who greeted him, “Someone could die up there tonight.” In the end, a military helicopter retrieved the stranded teams, and everyone made it out alive, but the summit has continued to shatter racers’ dreams in the years since. Sass, who earned the Yukon Quest’s Sportsmanship Award by leading another team out of a wicked storm on the summit in 2009, calls Eagle Summit “the essence of this race.”

In winter, it’s as empty and unforgiving a landscape as you’ll see on Earth

It’s not that Eagle Summit is extraordinarily tall. At 3,685 feet, it’s not even the highest point on the Quest trail; that honor goes to the 4,002-foot King Solomon’s Dome, on the way into Dawson City. But it’s steep – the mushers and their teams gain 3,000 feet in elevation in a handful of miles – and exposed: At the 65th parallel, the treeline slumps down around the mountains’ ankles, and shelter from the wind is nonexistent. And somehow, physical geography aside, Eagle Summit simply seems to delight in toying with the Quest mushers each year. The mountain’s moods can define the race; it’s a safe bet that more mushers have been forced to give up here than on any other stretch of trail.

For the handlers who cross it by road, following the Steese Highway carved into the rim of the hill, it’s only slightly less intimidating. It doesn’t help that they have to run the gauntlet twice, once on their way north to meet their teams in Circle City, and again on their way back south towards the finish line in Fairbanks.

Late on the night of Feb. 9, as the lead mushers neared Circle City and Atkinson and Jetté fought their way through snowdrifts back in Haines Junction, more than 500 miles away, weather closed in over Eagle Summit, and the Steese Highway was closed to traffic. The leaders’ handlers were stalled in Fairbanks, and as frontrunners Hugh Neff, Allen Moore, and Jake Berkowitz arrived at the checkpoint through the morning of the 10th, there were no support crews to greet them.

“We didn’t get there until Jake had been there for an hour or so,” says Zack Steer, a two-time Quest finisher who helped out with the Berkowitz team as a handler this year. (Berkowitz, a rising star in mushing, had gotten started as a handler for Steer’s 2010 Quest and Iditarod campaigns, so this year the veteran was returning the favor.) Even once the treacherous road re-opened after a late winter sunrise, the handlers had a battle to reach Circle. “The two times that I’ve mushed over Eagle Summit I’ve had easy runs, so the toughest crossing I’ve had was driving a dog truck and trailer,” says Steer. “It’s like your own little mini Quest out there.”

it’s a safe bet that more mushers have been forced to give up here than on any other stretch of trail.

The Steese opened long enough to let the leaders’ support teams get in and out again, but by Sunday evening, the wind was picking up once more on the summit. By 7 p.m., the road was drifting in, snow was blowing in swirling gusts, and the high beams on the half-dozen or so vehicles that attempted the summit turned the careening snowflakes into a hypnotic cloud of shooting stars flying towards their windshields. Atkinson and Jetté came through just as conditions really went to hell, but they made it down off the summit and into the nearest checkpoint, a smoky, dim roadhouse at Central Corner. They stopped there for a pair of much-needed beers before rolling on northward to Circle City, where they expected Wilmshurst to emerge from the wild Dawson-Eagle-Circle stretch sometime the next day.

A couple of hours later, Peter Reuter made his attempt. He’d been holding off in Fairbanks, hoping to avoid an unnecessarily long wait at the Circle City fire hall, the designated checkpoint location, and he’d gambled that the road would be passable. He made it over the top, but on the windward side, his truck was soon drifted in. He was riding with two friends of Strathe’s – Drobny was still in Fairbanks – and they managed to dig the truck out and roll forward. Fifty yards further down the road, they were stuck again. “We had plenty of fuel,” says Reuter, so they left the truck where it was, idling in the storm, and settled in for the night in their snow pants and parkas, napping and watching episodes of “Flight of the Conchords” on Strathe’s iPad, until a plow came through and liberated them at sunrise on Monday morning.

Circle City, Alaska, to Fairbanks, Alaska, Feb. 10 to 13

Atkinson and Jetté spent a second night, Monday the 11th, in Circle, after Wilmshurst had left on his run south to Central Corner, and she was up every hour checking the SPOT tracker to time their run to meet him there. Staying put for as long as possible made sense: Circle City offered a floor to stretch out on, at least, while a premature drive to Central meant another night in the truck cab, idling in the roadhouse parking lot.

The way back over Eagle Summit was easier. Wilmshurst left Central checkpoint in the afternoon on Tuesday the 12th and headed up the steep slope, and Atkinson and Jetté drove up and over the mountain and watched him coming down the southern face under a clear sky at sunset, his team gliding down while caribou browsed in the distance. By dawn on the 13th, they were waiting at Two Rivers, the final checkpoint on the Yukon Quest trail before the mushers reached the finish line in Fairbanks.

“My credit card swipe is wearing out,” Atkinson said that morning, laughing, sitting on a bale of straw in a tent on the edge of the gravel pit that served as the Two Rivers checkpoint and dog yard. She and Jetté had been sleeping rough and eating makeshift meals as they went, but the dog truck sucked up fuel at nearly every gas station they passed. “That’s a sign that the Quest is over.”

Reuter was feeling reflective, too. “The opportunity for me to learn what goes into a 1,000-mile race is just awesome,” he says. “Any kind of lack of sleep or burnout is more than made up for.”

Fairbanks, Alaska, Feb. 11

Cody Strathe and Peter Reuter at the finish line in Fairbanks.
Photo credit: Yukon Quest / Pat Kane Photo

Twilight comes early in an Alaskan winter. As the afternoon rush hour began to buzz on the streets above them, a crowd of fans gathered on the frozen Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. They leaned over the railings of bridges, and down on ice level they stamped their feet for warmth as they lined the temporary chain-link fencing that marked the final stretch of the Yukon Quest trail.

Cody Strathe and Peter Reuter at the start line in Whitehorse

Media, race officials, checkpoint volunteers and veterinarians clustered under the bright yellow banner that marked the finish line. Spotlights had been set up inside the finish chute, and fat snowflakes swirled through their glow. Photographers double-checked their memory cards, and Josh Horst and Steve Stoller arrived on foot with a dozen raw steaks packed in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. Brent Sass and his team were expected any minute.

In the miles and days since Dawson City, Sass’ entourage had grown. Horst and Stoller were joined at the finish line by Mark Sass, Brent’s dad, and Kyla Durham, a young Quest veteran who’d handled for Sass in past years and had helped train the younger race dogs in his kennel. Brent’s girlfriend was there too, and a handful of others who’d pitched in along the way. Checkpoint security grumbled about the extra bodies in the finish chute, but in the end the whole gang was allowed to stay. Nobody wanted to miss the finish.

The crowd waited, leaning into the fencing, cameras ready. Finally, Sass arrived on a wave of cheers from the fans lining the trail, and glided smiling and ice-encrusted across the line in third place. He had passed Jake Berkowitz on Eagle Summit to move into the third position, then – in classic Sass fashion – had anchored his team and gone back downslope on foot to help his competitor up the mountain. Horst and Stoller and Durham and everyone else moved in around the team, and while Sass handed out steaks to each of his dogs, his army of helpers worked their way down the line, removing dog booties, scratching ears and massaging tired dog shoulders. As Sass stepped up onto a stack of wooden pallets, a makeshift podium, to address the media, and accepted a bottle of Alaskan Amber from the owner of a local bar, his handlers faded back into the night. Their work was done.

bottles of beer would be passed around and cracked open while the dogs steamed in the frozen air and the photographers scuttled in the snow

Two nights later, the scene on the frozen Chena would be repeated, the crowd waiting anxiously for Cody Strathe to cross the line in 15th place, Brian Wilmshurst following hours later in 17th. Reuter and Drobny and Atkinson and Jetté would be joined by Sass and Stoller and Horst and everyone else, racers and handlers who’d already finished their odyssey and had a long hot shower and a good night’s sleep cheering on those who were still completing their last few miles of trail. The onlookers would whistle as Strathe stepped off his runners and kissed his wife, and bottles of beer would be passed around and cracked open while the dogs steamed in the frozen air and the photographers scuttled in the snow around them, snapping away.

The mushers had raced across 1,000 miles of frozen trail, and the handlers had covered more than 1,500 miles by road. Soon enough, the frozen river trails would break open, the brief summer months would flash by, and the dance of sponsors and budgets and registration forms would begin. By September, the first snow would stick to the hills, and suddenly it would be racing season once again. But for now, it was time to rest.

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kurt Mensching

Photo Credit: Quest Photographers (shown on images), Eva Holland

About the Author

Eva Holland (@evaholland) is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. She's a contributing editor to Up Here magazine and the Arctic columnist for Pacific Standard. Her work has also appeared in AFAR, Grantland, Smithsonian, Deadspin, Maisonneuve, Hazlitt, and numerous other publications in print and online.