Run, Quito, Run

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My body’s in California. Obviously. Specifically, at home, at work, at the gym. But right now my imagination and heart are in Alaska (and Canada) as 18 mushers and 252 dogs race across 1,000 miles of vast, cold territory.

This year’s Yukon Quest is about two days and 20 hours old; at any point I can tell you exactly how much time has elapsed since it began since the information is available on the Yukon Quest website. They’ve got another seven or eight days before someone wins this thing. And that’ll be exciting as hell, and also a little sad because it’ll be over.

Right now, I’m spending a good chunk of my time following the live tracker on the various racers. I’m rooting for Allen Moore of SP Kennel, mostly because I actually had the opportunity to meet him and his wife, Aliy Zirkle (and their dogs!) when I was in Anchorage last year for the Iditarod. I walked away with the impression that they’re both absolutely in love with their dogs, and with mushing, and it’s heartening to see people so suited to the life they’re chosen for themselves. And I’m a little envious that they get to live and spend so much time with their dogs.

Allen won the Yukon Quest last year, and Aliy placed second in the Iditarod one month later with pretty much the same team. Which means that little Quito, their female lead, is quite the champion.

If you’re wondering about the differences between the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, though the Iditarod is better known, the Yukon Quest is much, much harder. They’re about the same length—1,112 miles for the Iditarod and 1,000 miles for the Yukon Quest, but the Quest is colder, the terrain is rougher, and it only has 10 checkpoints to the Iditarod’s 26. Checkpoints are stops where the racers can relax, camp, sleep, eat and the dogs get checked out by veterinarians. If one of the dogs isn’t physically fit to continue with the race, the mushers can leave them behind at the checkpoints in the care of trained veterinarians. Very few racers finish with the 14 dogs they started out with. Usually, they’re down to 11 or maybe 12.

Of course, not everyone uses the checkpoint as an opportunity to sleep and rest their dogs. Allen and Aliy prefer to camp outside the checkpoints because it’s more peaceful for their dogs, there’s fewer people about, less commotion. Every second of sleep counts on the trail. The mushers, unfortunately, don’t get nearly as much sleep as their dogs. The mushers are rushing around to feed and massage the dogs and often won’t get any opportunity to sleep at all.

While Allen races the Yukon Quest, Aliy’s racing the shorter 300-mile version of the race with their kennel’s younger dogs, giving them the necessary experience for them to eventually run longer, harder races. She won at some point last night, and Allen’s been battling for first between Brent Sass and Hugh Neff pretty much since the race started. Allen and Brent are both running with 13 dogs, having dropped one apiece at a checkpoint. (I learned from the SP Kennel blog, which I have also been following religiously, that Allen dropped Puppet at the Slaven’s Roadhouse checkpoint because she had a paw injury.)

So, why am I gushing about this in a completely disorganized fashion on a blog ordinarily dedicated to cats and the woes of indie authors?

Basically, the race is less than one-third of the way through and people at the office are already mocking me for giving them facts about the race without their having asked for them, or really caring at all about the Yukon Quest or dog mushing. My boyfriend keeps catching me playing videos of the dogs howling as they’re about to leave a checkpoint—a primal, joyful sound that makes me want to go back to Alaska, to buy a cabin, to start my own team, to endure long stretches of isolation and cold with these dogs as my only companions.

I am a lost soul. And I haven’t yet figured out how to deal with this. It’s been one year since I went dog mushing in Alaska, one year since I watched the start of the Iditarod. And I still think of how comfortable I felt there, how piercingly sad it felt to realize that our dog mushing adventure was coming to an end and I’d have to turn over my team and likely never get an opportunity to mush again. Just when I was getting the hang of it. Just when I was comfortable enough to encourage my dogs with a high-pitched “good dogs.”

I’ve never fallen in love with something that requires an extensive move to pursue. I don’t kid myself that I’d find a newspaper job if I moved to Alaska. I don’t even know if the romance would rapidly wear thin and I’d find myself surrounded by conservative rednecks and up to my elbows in snow, regretful. I was born in California, raised in California, and when the temperature drops below 60 I put on my warm Alaska socks meant for much colder temperatures. I worry I’m one of those domesticated dogs that requires a knitted sweater in order to go outside. What if living in California has made me soft? What if Alaska is where I belong?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. So I refresh the live tracker and check Allen’s progress along the Yukon Quest, and check the Yukon Quest 300 tracker to watch as the other teams draw nearer Aliy’s position at the finish line. And I read the SP Kennel blog for background on what’s going on two thousand miles away.

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Comments

  1. Most people don’t “get” the relationship between the mushers and the dogs. You do. So even though you don’t live here, you have the right frame of mind. Best wishes on following your dreams.

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