CARMACKS, Yukon — A year ago, Cody Strathe watched from the sidelines for a second straight year as his wife, Paige Drobny, competed in the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile race.
The couple from Squid Acres Kennel in Ester are both back in this year's field for the first time since 2016, when they each had teams compete in the Quest and the Iditarod.
So, how did the couple with more than 50 dogs in their kennel decide who gets which dogs for their team?
“We didn’t flip a coin,” Drobny said Sunday as she zipped up her parka and prepared for a 73-mile run from the Carmacks checkpoint to Pelly Crossing, the third checkpoint on the Canada side. “He’s just a gentleman and allowed me to take the race team.”
Strathe, across the hall at the Carmacks Recreation Centre, where the checkpoint was located, had a quick retort: “She always wins when we arm wrestle.”
Strathe, who handled for Drobny's team the past two years, is using nine dogs that have never competed in a 1,000-mile race. In fact, his team had never participated in a race before finishing 16th at the Copper Basin 300 in mid-January.
With a squad full of 2-year-olds, Strathe has had his hands full. There are a couple goobers in the bunch, particularly Laird and Sierra, who like to branch off and do their own thing while on the trail.
“Laird is kind of the class clown,” Strathe said. “He likes to hunt, so if he sees a moose or smells something, he’s going to be jumping around looking for something. Sierra is kind of the same way; she runs off the trail and screws around a bit. But for the most part, they’re there and working hard.”
Strathe will receive a boost while he travels from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City, the final checkpoint before teams reach the Alaska border. Because of poor trail conditions between Braeburn and Carmacks, teams were required to truck from checkpoint to checkpoint and were given the option of starting the race with as few as eight dogs, and the choice to add the remainder of the team — up to the maximum of 14 dogs — before leaving Pelly.
Strathe took advantage of that and sat his four strongest leaders until Pelly. He’s especially eager to see how 3-year-old Wild Turkey does when he joins the team.
“He didn’t get to race last year, but he’s kind of my main leader,” Strathe said of Wild Turkey. “He’s a real badass — a tough, focused dog.”
Drobny said eight of her dogs are back from last year’s race, which ended on a sour note when she scratched in Carmacks on the way to Whitehorse, where this year’s race to Fairbanks began.
Like Strathe, Drobny left her four main leaders on the truck for when the team heads toward Dawson. Her team includes an eclectic mix of characters, but the common theme is they love to compete.
“Chevelle is the one that barks all the time when we’re on the trail,” Drobny said about one of her 5-year-old females. “She doesn’t make noise when we’re on the truck or at home, but when we’re on the trail, she’s always barking and wants us to go faster up hills or catch another team. She loves to race.”
Sable, 8, is her team’s crafty veteran, having run 13 1,000-mile races.
“She’s run every race we’ve ever done,” Drobny said, adding that Sable is very shy. “She’s a little short, fat, round dog. You’d never look at her and think that she would be a stellar sled dog. But she’s the one dog at our kennel that’s done everything — two 1,000-mile races every year since she was 2 years old – and she’s still rocking it.
“She’s never been injured and she’s never had a bad day. It’s pretty cool.”
Both teams are in full swing on the trail, but Strathe said he didn’t expect his team would encounter his wife’s until the couple meets in Dawson, where teams are required to have a 36-hour layover.
Although they only ran the 100-mile journey from Whitehorse to Braeburn before reconnecting, Drobny said her husband is often on her mind when she’s out on the trail.
“On that last run, there was one camp and I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder where he’s camped. I wonder how the dogs look,’” she said. “They’re all my dogs, too, so now I’m worried about 28 dogs instead of 14. But I know he does a good job. I’m not worried about him.”
The only married couple in this year’s field have the benefit of doing an activity they both love and are passionate about. But it does come at a cost, and not just one that hurts their wallets.
Strathe said executing the logistics of entering two teams in this year’s Quest instead of just one, like the couple did the previous two years, wasn’t easy.
“It feels kind of like hell,” he said of the pre-race preparation. “I’m not talking about the financial aspect; it’s just a lot of work trying to get everything organized for two. We’ve got four handlers on the road. We’ve got two trucks and a trailer on the road. It’s a lot when everything is double.”
Their teams still have more than 700 miles to run before reaching the finish line in Fairbanks, but Strathe said he hasn’t had any regrets about the couple’s decision to compete alongside one another this year.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.