Layovers Vital To Yukon Quest Mushers, Dogs

Sled dogs take a rest in the dog yard at Pelly Crossing. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Sled dogs take a rest in the dog yard at Pelly Crossing. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks)

After Yukon Quest mushers arrive in Dawson City, they drive their teams head across the Yukon River to a public campground, where handlers build elaborate camps for the dogs. They’ll get massaged, fed and sleep for the 24 hour layover.

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Brent Sass had his dog team lined out and waiting to leave the dog camp more than a half hour early.

“I’m a little anxious, because it’s a lot easier once you get out on the trail,” he said. “This is like before that big game.”

He says he and his team were well rested.

“I feel great. I slept down here with the dogs in the wall tent and I got a good seven hour rest and then a couple naps in between feedings and the dogs did the exact same thing, we’re kind of all on the same schedule,” Sass said. “They ate really well at this stop, which is awesome. They drank really well before we left so they’re all super hydrated.”

A few minutes later, Sass was checking his mandatory gear, just to make sure, and then he took off.

As Sass left camp, handlers for most of the other teams were still setting up.

Beth Shepard and Jake Berkowitz pull at the legs of a collapsible cot. They were also organizing gear and food for rookie musher Jason Campeau.

“…A good wide open place for the dogs to sleep, ample room for the dogs and you… time and energy that you should, a nice Arctic oven to keep everyone warm and yeah that’s pretty much it.”

Berkowitz drove dog teams in the Yukon Quest in 2012 and 2013 before he retired. Behind him, a giant blue tarp hangs between the trees from three ropes. It’s a makeshift tent, tall enough to stand in. Piles of snow topped with straw line the sides. They look like little nests.

“Every dog has their own little spot. We’ll get the dogs up about every six to eight hours,” Berkowitz said. “We’ll get them out of the tent I’ve always found when the dogs go in here they kind of into hibernation mode where you’re not going to see them devour food, so getting them out of here and then they’ll come back, snuggle back up.”

Brent Sass was the first musher to reach Dawson during the 2015 Yukon Quest. (Photo by Emily Schwing/KUAC)
Brent Sass was the first musher to reach Dawson during the 2015 Yukon Quest. (Photo by Emily Schwing/KUAC)

Joel Switzer has been a handler on the Yukon Quest trail many times. He says he’s learned plenty about dog care during the layover.

“You learn things from other teams and other tricks and how other people recover their dogs,” Switzer said. “Well, how to stretch them out and rub the muscles and shoulders and what to look for in the feet.”

After they’re massaged, Switzer will feed dogs a mixture of hot water, kibble and meat.

“There’s something called BLT that people talk about – beef, liver and tripe – what we have isn’t exactly that, but the BLT has a whole new meaning in the dog mushing world,” he said.

It’s the kind of food that’s among a variety Cody Strathe’s dogs will devour. The Fairbanks musher checked in at Dawson exhausted from a run over King Solomon’s dome.

“We had to break trail all the way up and over and around and down, yeah there’s about a foot of snow up there and it’s drifting,” he said.

He was ready to bed down his team, but he had hoped for more rest.

“It’s short, really short, I miss 36,” he said.

Strathe is among a majority of mushers who would have preferred to layover for 36 hours halfway through the race. But this year, the rules committee decreased that time by 12 hours and added two six hour stops elsewhere.

Overall, total mandatory rest time will drop from 52 to 50 hours this year.