Last time I ran this race, I was working for a great kennel, and I was given the privilege of running this race competitively with a very talented team. I certainly had a blast, and did well enough to take second place! That certainly was a great team of dogs, and some of them have found themselves on some of the finest race teams in the sport. I continue to watch them progress in the racing world. Some will even be featured in Mushing Magazine’s Super Dogs, as rising stars in the sport! It was a pleasure to be able to go on the ride with them, but this season, I went into this race with a completely different mindset and a completely different team of dogs. This year, these were my dogs and the first team I can call my very own. This was a young team I have raised from puppy hood, and have been around from their first steps out of the whelping box with their mother Teva, to their first hook up as a team. I remember them screaming and hollering with an innate excitement to run and pull, even though at the time, they had never experienced the joys of running in harness. Now grown up, this young team would face the Yukon Quest 300 which would be their first three hundred mile race. This race is known to be one of the hardest three hundred mile stretches of trail you can travel in Alaska. Our goals we’re not to win, nor to come in second. Our goals we’re to finish, and finish happy! This was an experience builder for my young team. By completing the Yukon Quest 300, this team would build confidence and experience and be set up for a great future in long distance dog mushing. Those we’re our goals coming into the race, and I’ll tell you this right from the beginning, these dogs succeeded! They kicked butt to the fullest extent! Here is our story from the 2016 Yukon Quest 300. Hope you enjoy!
It was a bright sunny day at the start in Fairbanks. It was even warm! The temperature felt as if it had risen to around fifteen degrees above zero which believe it or not, for some of my dogs, this was a problem…. One of my veterans, Smoke, is a sixty five pound monster female we have nicknamed ‘The Dire Wolf’ who is from ‘north of the wall.’ As we say in the sport, she is a true ‘Quest dog.’ What that really means is, she is tough. She is built for extreme cold and excels in it. Smoke is a VERY low maintenance dog who does nothing but eat and run. Which in my mind are the criteria for a perfect sled dog. But when the temperatures rise above zero, she definitely feels the heat, but being a true ‘Quest Dog,’ she has the mental toughness to drive on. I informed Smoke before the race that the temperatures WOULD cool down. For this was the Yukon Quest, which is known to be the coldest sled dog race on the planet. As we will find out later, the cold did arrive and my promise remained intact.
We we’re scheduled to be the third team to leave the starting chute. I was of course running late. In true Chase fashion, I felt inclined to chat with everyone who stopped by the truck to wish us good luck. Sometimes I need to learn to shut my mouth and focus on one task at a time, but I just love talking about dogs, especially mine! The race officials informed me I had ten minutes until it was my turn to leave, with haste I quickly booted all of my dogs and finished packing my sled. By then, I was dripping with sweat from rushing in what we here in the interior of Alaska would consider a heat wave! There is nothing like throwing your parka and race bib on at the start of the race with fully saturated long johns…. I guess Smoke and I have a lot in common. We both don’t do well when it is above zero degrees!
I was escorted to the start chute by a great group of volunteers with my team anchored to the front of a snow machine. This is a common practice at a race start. Sled dogs are so amped to go it usually takes the help of at least five people and the big brakes and weight of a snow machine to hold a dog team from prematurely taking off. Having strong trust in the volunteers, I left my sled and walked up the line, petting each and every dog before we embarked on our journey over the first three hundred miles of the storied Yukon Quest Trail. They screamed with excitement and my little leader Rubicon Rubi pounded in her harness with her uncle Weasley, who I borrowed from the kennel who gave me my Alaskan start in racing years ago. Weasley has run the entire Yukon Quest trail and has been a rock solid leader for many years in many of Alaska’s premier races. It was an honor to have him in the team, thanks Judy! With his experience in the front along with Rubi’s youthful enthusiasm. we had a strong front end ready to charge down trail.
After patting each dog on the head and wishing them good luck as well as thanking my awesome handler’s, Matt, Riley, Sabe, and Luther who helped get this twelve dog team of organized chaos to the start, I stood on the runners and the countdown began. Once we reached zero, I thanked the staff holding my sled back and let off the brake. They let go of my sled and unhooked us from the snow machine and off we went! The side of the trail was lined by hundreds of people who came out to support us which was awesome! The Yukon Quest 300 is the little guy to the big 1000 mile race but arguably the most challenging three hundred mile race around. It does not always get the most press, so I thank all of the fans who stuck around to wish all the teams a safe journey. You all rock! I made sure to give high fives to anyone I could reach before getting on the Chena River where we would begin the march to the first check point 75 miles down trail in my home town of Two Rivers.
The river stretch was beautiful. Bright blue skies and plenty of people enjoying the festivities of the race. I must have seen at least ten giant bonfires where people were partying on the river banks cheering teams as they went by. I made sure to socialize it up with these folks because by nightfall, I would be entering the dark cold wilderness of the Quest trail. This would be the last bit of society I would really see for a few days other than exhausted mushers and volunteers at future check points. I even joked with some of the folks that I was going to pull my team over and hang out for a bit. My high light to this part of the journey was the crowd of what looked like close to fifty people on the river cheering on the passing teams. There was even a nice fellow who was handing out the most amazing Philly cheese steaks I have ever had! To be honest, I think I had a day’s worth of food in the few hours as I meandered down the Chena River.
After traveling a little further I came to Nordale Bridge which crosses over the Chena River. Now, I forgot to mention my parents and brother flew up from New Hampshire to watch the race. My brother Matt actually joined my hard working sleep deprived handler crew of Riley, Steph, Tuk-Dog, and my Ford F-250. They were responsible for meeting me at each check point along the race. In case any of my dogs decided they did not want to continue on. Also, they clean up the mess I make at each check point. Which for me, is probably a larger task than most…. Thanks! Anyways, while my brother Matt was on his way out to Two Rivers with the rest of the crew, my parents decided to wait for me as I passed under the bridge. My dad and mom cheered as we approached, and I laughed out loud to myself when I saw my mom cheering and doing some kind of funny dance as I passed! As I have said before, dog mushing is more than someone with a team of dogs, it is a community of support. My parents have been nothing but that since I began mushing ten years ago. Watching my mom do some ridiculous dance on the ice of the Chena River was the evidence! After passing them I took time to stop and chat for a moment. My mom yelled at me, “Get moving, you have a team coming!” As a good son, I listened to my mother and off we went! Even though I certainly was not racing my young team, especially this early in the race, I continued on with the attempt to stay ahead. My strategy early on was not to go fast, but to run conservative. I fully expected teams to catch me in this first seventy five miles and when I looked back to see who it was, well, it was none other than my neighbor and one of the up and comers of this sport, Ryne Olson! Her team looked amazing as they loped up behind me. In no way would I consider her competition, so I pulled over and let her freight train pass. This was a second place Copper Basin 300 team looking to win. It would be an honor to lose to Ryne! I let her go by and wished her luck. The next time I saw Ryne was on the last day of the race on a head on pass and her team still was looking good! Definitely follow Ryno Kennel this year as she makes her second run in the Iditarod this March.
From this point the trail continued meandering down river and soon entered into the familiar trails of Two Rivers. This stretch can always be confusing for any teams that call this home. Our dogs know these trails all too well, and during a race, they occasionally argue with us as to what trail they want to take! My team did not protest any of my decisions on this stretch other than the usual turn that takes them home to our cabin two miles down trail. They wanted to go left, but I told them that this night, it was going to be a right. They agreed and off we went. A few miles later, we passed the Pleasant Valley Store. This is the last stop for gas and everything else on Chena Hot Springs Road. It is also a great spectator view point. I came upon a huge crowd of home town Two Rivers folk cheering on their local teams. Me being one of them! Again, the sense of community up here is amazing! The team was a little confused passing all the people, but eventually we navigated through the crowd as we progressed down trail and across Chena Hot Springs Road and into the wilderness. It was here that we decided to stop and set up camp for a while. We found a nice private pull off on the side of the trail away from any passing teams. It is very important to find peace away from any distractions when it is time to rest the team. I often say sled dogs are like three year olds with the worst ADHD you have ever seen! This place was perfect. I anchored the team, laid down straw and began the camping procedure.
When I say camping, this does not mean us mushers roll out our sleeping bags and sleep under the stars and the Aurora Borealis. It means we go to work. Between melting snow into boiling water and cooking dog food, as well as assuming the role of athletic trainer and going through each of our canine athletes and rubbing them down and checking them out, we potentially have hours of work to do. I planned on resting the dogs for five hours here on the insulation of a spread out bale of straw. By resting for five hours means I might get one hour of rest. And by rest, I mean laying on the sled for a little bit and closing my eyes. There is no comfort in dog racing. These are events where dogs are pampered like royalty and mushers willingly slave to their every needs. We do whatever we can to make sure our dogs are as comfortable as possible while we sacrifice sleep and our bodies for their wellbeing. It is the truest of honors to cater to these dogs. What they are capable of and do on the trail astounds me every time we head out on a run.
After our rest, I went through each dog and put fresh booties on each of their feet and prepared them for another five hours of running. With the pace we were traveling this would have us pass through the Two Rivers Check point and put us in the wild country before Rosebud Summit. This next stretch of trail was pretty easy. It was a relatively flat trail with one technical stretch of playing ping pong with spruce trees. I saw a few other teams along this stretch. Some were camped teams on the side of the trail, some were teams I passed, and others were teams that had passed us. Along this trail in the darkness of a moonless night sky, the dancing northern lights illuminated above us. It really was quite the show as we progressed towards the Two Rivers checkpoint. Although our main focus was on the team, when the lights dance like they were, it can be hard to look at anything else! They waved across the sky in big green ribbons. Some people claim they can hear the lights when they dance with this magnitude, but I have never heard them. Maybe someday! Either way, the show was amazing. The northern lights are one of the many privileges of mushing in the north. Dog mushing can be done anywhere there is snow, but not everywhere can a musher get a light show like this during the crispness of a subzero night.
Eventually we came upon the checkpoint. Here I saw familiar faces and was briefed on what was happening early in the race. Information such as who had gone through, and who decided to stay. I was interested, but none of this concerned me too much. For I was only racing the trail with the goal of getting to the end. But still, it is fun to see others strategy and hypothesis what their next move in the race might be. Unlike other sled dog races, the Yukon Quest 300 requires minimal rest at check points. Only six hours are required. Certainly teams will chose to take more, but this rest could be made up on the trail or in the four check points along the way. This really allows mushers to come up with strategy and practice their wilderness camping skills. Most modern sled dog races require huge amounts of rest at check points where mushers can be spoiled by modern amenities like a burger and fries and a warm place to nap. Don’t take me wrong, I certainly enjoy a burger and fries. I did in this race, but it is nice to not feel forced to run check point to check point and have the option to stop and simply enjoy the wilds with your dog team away from the noise and the confusion of modern conveniences. Or maybe I just read too much Jack London as a kid…
My strategy had us grabbing a few things at the check point such as hot water and dog food. I poured the water and added the kibble, beef, and fat in my cooler with the idea of allowing it to soak during my short run to where I had hoped to camp. In the past, with an experienced team, I would have made it from Fairbanks to Mile 101 check point in two runs covering a distance of roughly one hundred and twenty miles. The second run would travel over the treacherously steep climb over Rosebud Mountain. But due to the inexperience in my team, I wanted to make it a three run journey. This would allow them to have more rest and more food in their bellies for the climb over Rosebud. I am not kidding about Rosebud. Many races advertise claiming they have hills to climb, but the Yukon Quest has MOUNTAINS to climb. These are no joke summits where you gain two thousand feet of elevation in a short distance. The summits are barren wind swept tundra where a storm can blow up at any moment causing white out conditions. To travel over these can take strategic planning, and with a young dog team like mine, planning your run over a mountain like Rosebud can make or break your race. Many dog teams falter on these climbs and spend all of their gas on the ascent. Some don’t even make it over the tops and have to turn back. I would not allow that to happen to my team. We would head out of the Two Rivers check point and camp about one hour outside and relax a bit before the climb.
The trail meandered through the remnants of an old forest fire with mountains looming over head. It was almost as if we were being funneled into battle as the valley narrowed. The battle was soon to be Rosebud Mountain. After short run, we found a nice pull off on the side of the trail. I had passed a few teams with the same strategy as mine. They too had young teams and were playing it safe. As I prepared camp, a few dog teams passed. They seemed to be running with vigor towards a night time onslaught of the face of Rosebud. I wished each team good luck as they sped by. I on the other hand spread out straw for the team, removed their booties, and fed each dog a nice soupy meal of hot water, beef, poultry fat, and some of the finest kibble in the business! They slurped it down fast. Even though my dogs have nice burly fur for cold weather, I still babied the gang by putting nice warm coats on each dog while they rested. After I had done my chores and settled the dogs down for a nice nap, I too laid down on the straw, and closed my eyes for a little while. As we know by now, sleep is a rare thing in dog sledding, so when you get a chance to catch up on rest, a musher needs to take full advantage!
A few dog teams went by while we rested. In my dreams I also wished them good fortune for this challenging leg of their journey. I also heard at times some screaming and barking not too far down trail. This concerned me a bit. I vaguely remembered some challenging sections of trail before the mountain climb and the noises had me wondering what was coming up around the corner? Oh well, nothing I can do about it now…
After maybe a half hour of shut eye, I awoke to a slow sun rise. Blue light was illuminating the valley and the mountains were beginning to show their true height. We certainly were on the valley floor! I watched the day light fill the land for a bit and I may have even taken a few pictures… It was beautiful! But…. Eventually I had to get going. The dogs were starting to wake up anyways. I don’t even think Wizard slept! This dog is incredible, by the way. He is the father of my Jeep litter and really all he does is run forward, eat, and wag his tail, NO MATTER WHAT! He is always happy and ready to go. It does not matter how far he has run, Wizard is always ready. I guess that is why I bred him, and I have to say, these characteristics are showing up in all of my youngins’, heh heh heh…. (Proud father moment.)
After cleaning up our camp, I put boots back on all of the dogs, pulled the hook, and off we went! As we began running down the trail I was wondering what all of that barking and screaming was all about. I soon found out! Just around the bend was a sudden drop and hard right turn! It looked like a few teams had crashed on this turn over night. We on the other hand, had just made it around unscathed, although I am sure it did not look pretty! Turned out, this next stretch of trail was full of surprises, as well as over flow ice and water! At one point my little super leader Rubi stepped into a batch of over flow which did not look too deep. It turned out, we were wrong! It nearly swallow her up before she found her footing on solid ground like she never missed a step! This girl is impressive for sure! I think all of my puppy training of playing in water paid off for this trail. It was not easy to navigate but with Weasley and Rubi at lead, we charged through it just fine. We continued onward, towards a wall of moutains and the STEEP face of Rosebud awaited!
The trail had us meandering through this valley where the mountains began funneling us towards our ascent of the famous climb. Once I noticed the trail slanting up, I stopped and took off my parka and any extra layers. From experience, I knew this was going to be a brutal work out and here in the interior, higher elevations mean warmer temperatures. I was predicting a twenty degree warm up on the summit. After stripping down, the trail steepened. Up we went, through the waning forest and soon we entered the tundra. A wide open vastness of snow blinded us in the morning light as the trail suddenly steepened. I spent a good bit of this season training for this very moment. Teaching the dogs to climb and search for footing. Up they charged while I pushed the sled in the soft snow. I think the most ‘fun’ part of this climb is the fact the trail climbs in steps. One thinks they are at the summit only to eventually see another climb coming. I thought we had reached the top and began celebrating with the dogs, but I soon realized the trail took a big sweeping turn to the left and rose up another incredible steep climb. This proved to be the most challenging.
By now, I was dripping with sweat and my legs were burning from helping the dogs get the sled up the mountain. Each step forwards, I ended up sliding a half step backwards while bracing the sled. This was the only time in the whole race I saw Rubi question any part of the trail. She would look back at me with interrogating eyes. I cheered her on with confidence and promised her there was a top to this mountain. With my cheers she would dig in and drive onward up the mountain. I love watching this little girl do her job. She really amazes me! This climb is where Weasley really earned his kibble. His experience really paid off as he helped assure Rubi there was a top. Youth is a nice thing, but having some old veterans in a team like Weasley really helped out! I can only imagine in the years to come where Rubi assumes this roll and helps the next generation of Tukaway up a mountain. The climb continued, the dogs dug in with everything they had as did I. This was one of those moments they truly amazed me. The focus and dedication of getting to the top of this mountain was incredible. For such a young team too.
We eventually crested the summit and rounded over onto a huge plateau of pure arctic conditions. It was a vastness of white. Not a tree or a bush in site in all directions. It was absolutely amazing country but certainly looked at times very unforgiving. Having grown up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where you learn to make friends with the wind, I could imagine the winds picking up at any moment and showing the true color of this barren land. We stopped for a moment, as I congratulated each dog with a piece of salmon for their hard work. They chowed it down and after taking in the beauty of the land, I caught my breath and we continued onward across this ridgeline with amazing three hundred and sixty degree views of mountains in all directions.
The trail ran across this ridge for a few miles. There were a few exciting moments of quick descents but overall, it was a well-deserved peaceful ride. Eventually the trail dropped back down into the trees. This part interested me. It was as if we had entered an entirely different weather system. On the side we came from, the snow had melted off all of the spruce bows from a mid-season thaw, but on the side we now entered, the trees were blanketed with a season’s worth of snow. The temperature had also dropped to twenty below! It seemed the cold held strong on the valley north of Rosebud. Which fired up the dogs to charge hard through this rough trail. It was a slow march over a lot of dips and bumps as well sliding and crashing over more over flow ice, but we eventually cruised in for a well-deserved rest at one of my favorite check points, Mile 101.