CARMACKS, Yukon — The Yukon Quest is always filled with surprises, twists and unexpected turns. This year’s race tossed a curveball that the 30 teams in the field were able to see coming.
Before the teams even began the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, they knew an early change was waiting for them once they reached Braeburn, the first checkpoint located about 100 miles from the start line.
On Jan. 21, the Quest sent out a news release that stated teams would be required to truck 77 miles from Braeburn to Carmacks, the second checkpoint. The decision, which was made because of a lack of snow between the checkpoints, created a ripple effect that forced teams to attack the early portion of the race in a different fashion than in previous years.
“It’s definitely different this year because of that,” said Kerry Quade, who is one of Misha Wiljes’ handlers.
There was also another wrinkle with the race’s decision: Handlers were able to be hands-on with their teams’ dogs during the Braeburn and Carmacks checkpoints. Handlers typically aren’t able to help their mushers until the teams spend a 36-hour layover in Dawson City, the final checkpoint on the Canada side.
But because the Quest initiated a mandatory 12-hour layover that started when teams pulled into Braeburn, the mushers were able to sit back and relax while their handlers got to work.
“The mushers were joking how nice it was to have a pit crew, like, ‘Oh man, I wish the whole race was like this,’” said Amanda Brooks, who is a handler and the fiancee of Matt Hall from Two Rivers. “They got a lot of sleep and a lot of rest here, which was really good for them.”
Another factor of the Quest’s announcement was that teams would be able to start in Whitehorse with as few as eight dogs, then add the remainder of their teams – up to maximum of 14 dogs – before leaving Carmacks or Pelly Crossing, the third checkpoint located about 250 miles from the start.
No team started in Whitehorse with a full squad of 14 dogs, meaning every handler spent some extra time with a few of their dogs. Ketil Reitan, who is handling for his son, Martin Apayauq Reitan, a 21-year-old rookie from Kaktovik, decided to use some of his down time behind the sled.
“I had lots of time with them in Braeburn,” said Ketil Reitan, who ran the Quest in 1989 and has finished multiple Iditarod Trail Sled Dog races. “At that time, we had six dogs in the truck, so I took the dogs for a 20-mile training run out of Braeburn. Those six dogs should get some exercise, too, so they won’t have to work as hard when they join the team.”
The work continued for the handlers once teams reached Carmacks. Ketil Reitan said the 12-hour layover created an atmosphere that is similar to the one teams will face prior to reaching Dawson, the final checkpoint before crossing into Alaska, and a mandatory 36-hour rest.
“This turned out to be a little bit like a mini-Dawson checkpoint,” the elder Reitan said of Carmacks.
Still, even if the mushers were able to give their handlers some added responsibilities, it can be tough for them to not participate when it comes to caring for their dogs.
“For us, Misha really dictates the schedule,” Quade said of the team’s plan at Carmacks. “She fed them and then she rested, so the dogs rested then, too.”
Hall gave Brooks a few instructions, but then he retreated to the floor of the Carmacks Recreation Centre – where the checkpoint is located – for a nap.
Brooks said she was happy to handle a little bit more than she does most years, especially if it meant giving her fiancé some extra time to relax.
“It’s nice, because I know the dogs so he’s able to go in and get some rest,” she said. “He’ll give us a couple notes — ‘make sure you do this and that’ — then we’ll take over.”
The teams will be arriving in Dawson City in the coming days, but the Quest’s early route change has already given the teams’ handlers a trial run for the race’s longest layover.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.