Dog Team on the Hill by Michelle Keil

February 24


EXCITEMENT IS HIGH WHENEVER THE CALL GOES UP, "DOG TEAM!!!" signal the arrival of the next Yukon Quest team coming down the hill into the checkpoint in Eagle. Watching teams come off the trail - the previous checkpoint now 150 miles behind them - with faces smiling and tails wagging never gets old.

IMMEDIATELY UPON EACH TEAM'S ARRIVAL A "CHECKER" DOCUMENTS REQUIRED INFORMATION... musher's name, bib number, exact time of arrival and how many dogs the musher has with them. (They must check in with the same number of dogs that they left with at the last checkpoint.) Checkers also confirm that the musher has all of their mandatory gear, such as cold weather sleeping bag, hand ax, snowshoes, veterinary record book, dog booties, cooker to melt snow and heat dog meals, their SPOT GPS tracker, etc.

CHECKERS ARE VERY EFFICIENT...the whole check-in process usually taking less than three minutes. Teams are then immediately "parked" in a spot in the "dog yard" where other volunteers/checkers bring the musher's Drop Bags and bales of straw to them. As soon as the sled comes to a stop in the dog yard - and before doing anything else - the musher begins to care for the dogs, laying out straw for bedding, removing dog booties, checking paws for any signs of damage and joints for any soreness, and getting water to make the dogs' meals.

WORKING IN TEAMS, VETERINARIANS BEGIN AT check each and every dog, listening to their heart and lungs, checking their pulse, checking paws and joints, and assessing their overall condition. Mushers can also request specific veterinary assistance at any time during their 4-hour mandatory stay at this checkpoint if they have any dog(s) they want the veterinarians to check for any specific problem. (More on dog/veterinary care in another post.) Once the dogs are bedded down, have eaten and are resting comfortably, then and only then will mushers come inside to eat, warm up and maybe catch a short nap.

I TIMED SOME OF THE MUSHERS FROM THEIR MOMENT OF see how long it took them to get straw on the ground for their dogs and to begin taking off booties. With all the ones I clocked, it took them only 5 to 6 minutes from arrival to having bedding on the ground for the dogs, and that includes their check-in! But it was generally 60-90 minutes after their arrival before the musher came inside to eat, warm up and take care of their own needs. Dogs always came first. And dogs who are veterans of this race are soon as straw arrives they get right down to the business of making themselves comfortable and resting while the musher tends to their other needs. They know how to bank rest so they'll be ready to roll when the musher again pulls the hook to head on down the trail.

LEAVING THE CHECKPOINT, THINGS HAPPEN PRETTY MUCH IN REVERSE. Mushers wake from their short naps (usually only an hour or two), maybe eat a little something, then go outside to care for their dogs again and pack supplies needed for the trail ahead. Some made another meal for their dogs or gave meat snacks. Many would get their dogs up and walking around a bit to limber up, and some gave massages. All dogs would get paw ointments and fresh booties put on, along with any cold weather gear (jackets, ruffs, etc.) they might need for the cold, windy run down the Yukon River. Checkers make sure the mushers have had their vet books signed off by a veterinarian and log their departure time. Then it's off they go down the trail!