SP Kennel is a premier sled dog racing kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska, dedicated to the individual dog through excellent health, nutrition, training and specialized care.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2011 Copper Basin: a Handler’s Perspective

For many folks unfamiliar with the world of dog sled racing, I’ve decided to give a slightly different perspective of the CB300 and highlight a group of people easily overlooked: the handlers. Before I delve into the trail, checkpoints, and challenges of the race from the eyes of handler, I’ll first explain who/what exactly is a handler.

Handlers are essential to most races (excluding the Iditarod), and yet we can do so little during the actually competition. In fact, the term ‘handler’ is a bit misleading, seeing as we cannot touch the dogs or assist the musher once the race begins. Perhaps, a more accurate title would be ‘observer’. Essentially, we’re like a pit crew at Talladega that can’t actually touch the car, instead saying, “Hey Dale, it looks like you’ve got a flat tire. You might want to fix that.” We can’t help bootie or feed the dogs; we can’t heat up water; we can’t lie out straw; we can’t even pet or massage the dogs.

So what
can we do? We can scout out a checkpoint before our musher arrives and stomp out the perfect spot for our team to camp. We can find where the water, drop bags, straw, food, and lodgings are located. As the mushers tire, we can gently remind them that they were going to wrap so-and-so’s wrist, or that they wanted to feed the two wheel dogs too. We can keep track of their rest times and wake them up when it’s time to leave. Once the musher and the dogs hit the trail, we can clean up their campsite, pack up the truck, take any dropped dogs with us, then drive to the next checkpoint to wait and watch some more. In between driving, waiting, watching, and cleaning, we catch a few moments sleep.
After reading the responsibilities of a handler, you may wonder who in their right mind would sign up for that job? And the answer is…everyone. Often times we’re volunteers who just like to be a part of the dog sledding world for a weekend. For many, meeting and interacting with the other handlers is half the fun. We’re an eclectic bunch, ranging in age, profession, interests, and experience, but for some reason we all find ourselves standing at -10, anxiously waiting for a light to start winding its way through the trees. Among the many characters I met were a young couple from Norway, a fellow Alabamian experiencing her first Alaskan winter, a guy from Anchorage with zero dog knowledge, and a “multi-handler” who has no real kennel affiliation but shows up to races and handles for whoever needs assistance. The excitement of racing and the enthusiasm of the dogs draw people from all walks of life who just want to be a part of the experience, myself included.

Now that I’ve established who/what is a handler, we’ll look at the Copper Basin 300 through the eyes of a participant who never sees more than 50 yards of the trail. Let’s start with the weather. During most of the race, the temperatures were warm by Copper Basin standards: 10 to -10 degrees. For handlers, this was
wonderful. It is much more enjoyable to wait outside in these temps than the typical -30 to -40 degrees commonly found during Copper Basin. For the musher, however, this meant more open water and deep overflow, so that they returned from runs wet and cold. This year’s trail route also varied from previous years. The race started from Paxson, and once all teams were on the trail, the handlers could drive the 3-4 hours to the next checkpoint, Chistochina. For the mushers, starting in Paxson meant that they were able to tackle the enormous hill with a fresh dog team right from the beginning. For the handlers, the already long drive from Paxson to Chistochina was further complicated by the 2-hour time differential between the first and last bibs (aka Aliy and Allen). The addition of the Spot Trackers in this year’s race was also incredibly helpful for the handlers, when they worked. Now only if we could get wireless or even cell phone reception at each of the checkpoints. And finally the finish in Paxson along Paxson Lake and the airstrip, while long for the mushers, gave the handlers a heads up as to their arrival so that we weren’t caught sleeping when they crossed the finish line.

Overall, handling for the SP Kennel teams in the Copper Basin 300 was three days packed with fun and excitement. I had the chance to learn from veteran CB300 handlers, Ray and Bob, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming races!

6 comments:

weedabble said...

Thanks for the insight Ryne...I'm jealous.Wish I could be there too. That's why the DogLog is so great...it let's us share in part of the fun!

BJ said...

I must add to Ryne's wonderful post. As being a handler in past CB's, and also a musher, I have to say, they are equally challenging! She did not emphasize how difficult it really is to stay awake, alert, and put up with the tired and sometimes grumpy mushers as they make their way in! I must say, our trio this year was spectacular, they were always prepared for us to arrive and alway had smiles on their faces with encouraging words. I do really look forward to seeing their faces when I come into a check point. When we came in to Chisto, wet and very cold, they were right on top of things. Informed us very quickly there was a cabin with a stove, and water for the dogs! They also had amazing spots picked out for us so our teams could get the best rest possible! A good handler in my opinion is priceless! Thanks guys!
Red and Black Team

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Ryne.
Good luck on the Burger Run. BTW: who is going to handle for you? :)

jplife said...

would love to some day get back into it all.Then I will be in wyoming for the races next week.
Looking forward to meet some of the mushers and hope to make a trip to Alaska next winter.Thanks for your posting Ryne.Thanks Aliy and Allen for all your updates.
Pete

Shooting Star said...

Hey Aliy and Allen! I hope you both are doing well! You are actually in the race right now, but I still wanted to wish you both luck! Aliy, I just noticed that you passed Deedee Jonrowe! Allen, you are doing very well keep it up! We had an AMAZING time in Alaska, thank you for taking the time to meet us and talk to us, (Even though I met Allen when he was in the hot tub!!!) I was one of the two girls who came in, went out, and then came back in to the spa and asked if you were Allen Moore. Sorry about that!! Thanks again! I miss you guys! ~Shooting Star (Brooksville to Alaska Team)

Shooting Star said...

Hey Aliy and Allen! I hope you both are doing well! You are actually in the race right now, but I still wanted to wish you both luck! Aliy, I just noticed that you passed Deedee Jonrowe! Allen, you are doing very well keep it up! We had an AMAZING time in Alaska, thank you for taking the time to meet us and talk to us, (Even though I met Allen when he was in the hot tub!!!) I was one of the two girls who came in, went out, and then came back in to the spa and asked if you were Allen Moore. Sorry about that!! Thanks again! I miss you guys! ~Shooting Star (Brooksville to Alaska Team)