Our volunteer shifts are all over, as all the teams have moved south towards the finish line in Whitehorse.
I had a great last shift yesterday afternoon/evening in the vet shack. Unfortunately for you, what happens in the vet shack, stays in the vet shack, so I can tell no tales. The confidentiality is mostly so volunteers don’t spread information about the health of other teams dogs, or any details of discussions between race officials, teams, and the vet team.
Judging by how much fat these dogs can burn after running the first 500 miles of the race, I should run to Fairbanks, Alaska next week 😉
Here’s a little recap of the roles we played in this year’s Yukon Quest.
Set-up: Jeff took the week off, so he was able to help set up the check point building in the visitor’s centre, getting the tables set up. He also helped put up the banners, metal framework, and fencing around the line, that you see in all the photos as the dog teams arrive. A small transport truck arrived with the food for each dog team, and bales of straw. Each team organizes their food for each of the check points which are sent ahead of them. Jeff organized the bags so each teams food would be together for easy pick up by their handlers.
Checkpoint: We did two overnight shifts on the checkpoint at the visitor’s centre. The job includes giving handlers their dog food bags, straw bales, race information packets, checking teams in and out, calling race headquarters with the arrivals and departures (times, number of dogs, etc.), answering the phone, and updating the arrival board and calculating the allowed departure time (after their 36 hour mandatory rest). We were also responsible for selling Yukon Quest official merchandise (and buying a lot of it! haha), and monitoring the computer so we could give people an estimation of when the next team would arrive.
On the first night, Tuesday, no teams had arrived yet, so it wasn’t too busy. We were there as the handlers arrived after a long drive around from Alaska, and gave them their paperwork, and food and straw if they were ready for it (none were on our shift). We helped answer questions from the teams, families, media, and fans who arrived.
Thursday’s night shift was much busier. There were four of us, so at times we split up, allowing two people to check teams in, and the other two could go across the frozen river to the campground where the teams were resting, and where the departure line was.
When a team arrived, we had to count their dogs (they can start with up to 14, but can drop them as they go based on their health or if they were injured), and ask them to show us their mandatory equipment, including an axe, cooker, fuel, snowshoes, vet book to track the health of the dogs, and sleeping bag. When Jeff and I did it, he asked the questions while I had to dig out the two satellite trackers from the sled. The SPOT was usually on the front/top, in a little dog bootie bag, and the smaller one was in another pocket, or inside the top of the sled. This was the single coldest thing I’ve ever done with my hands. Unwrapping the velcro and trying to pull out the trackers with my bare fingers, when 3 teams arrived at once, froze my hands to the point I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the tracker out of the third sled. Next year I need form fitting gloves so I didn’t have to remove my mittens! Those sleds were frozen! Once we were done, then the customs officials checked the mushers passport, their team and family members greeted them, and the media interviewed them. The race official and official vet on duty were often also at the line. After 10-15 minutes, the musher took his team back across the frozen Yukon River to the campground to bed down.
For the departure, we had a shorter checklist, asking the musher to show us their bag of dog booties. They needed to have two extra pairs for each dog. We also had to check that their SPOT satellite tracking device had be re-activated by race officials, and count the number of dogs they were departing with. The musher then had to sign, and we’d count them down to their allowed departure time, and off they went! There was very little fanfare for the departure. The one I did in the middle of the night was just two media members, me and another volunteer, and the musher who arrived just 30 seconds shy of his departure time. We were alone in the dark, with just a headlamp to see our clipboard.
Vet Shack: The vet shack is the picnic shelter in the campground in West Dawson, that has been closed in with plastic for the event. The volunteer helps the 1-3 vets by keeping the stove fed with firewood, and the generator on for their lights. Beyond that, the jobs can range from cleaning up dog pee, to feeding or giving water to any dog that may be in their care, and making sure they are comfortable. I was able to meet a vet from Australia, Spain, a couple from the U.S., and I worked a couple shifts with our wonderful local vet who we met last month when he helped Monty on his way.
Percy DeWolfe food concession: The Percy DeWolfe dog sled race is over a month away. It is a local event, racing up to Eagle, Alaska and back, commemorating Percy DeWolfe who ran the route with a dog sled for decades delivering the mail. As a fundraiser, dozens of community members brought food to be sold for the mushers, handlers, media, volunteers, and community members. Jeff and I did a four hour shift. He did most of the food serving with another fellow, through a busy dinner shift, while I kept busy in the kitchen washing the dishes and replenishing their supply of plates, coffee mugs, and utensils. The food included cookies, brownies, cakes, loaves, muffins, moose stew, chili, lasagna, casseroles, salads, soup, buns, borscht, along with pop, water, and coffee.
We were pretty tired at times, but it was really well worth it. We got to meet some great people and learned quite a bit about the sled dog community. I gained a lot of respect for the canine athletes, and all the work that goes in behind the scenes to make the race run so smoothly! It is really amazing to know these teams are going 1,000 MILES and most of it is very remote. Its really as much a survival game as a race.
Photography tips: When taking photos, if you don’t have media credentials, you’ll need to stand back and will end up with many photos like this:
I shot with our 70-300mm lens, which has a great zoom range, and stood back aways. I switched it to action mode, for fast photos, and just shot away. Got a few nice ones of the dogs, but mostly it was trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t so I can get better for next year. This is the craziest shot I got as one of the dogs shook:
See you next year mushers!