Monday, February 20, 2017

Behind-the-scenes in dog racing: the essential dog handler

Last week, I embarked on a journey on the opposite side of dog racing than I'm used to, one many are unaware of. For the first time in many years, I drove 650 miles to a race not to run behind a team of Alaskan huskies but to care for them and their musher(s).

Dog handlers (and animal handlers in general) come with many animal-related professions. Police dogs as well as security and military dogs have handlers; there are handlers in grooming businesses and in the dog show ring. In fact, I first started handling dogs for my parents when I was just 10 years old while showing their beloved English Bulldogs. Handlers are an integral part of the mushing world, one that is often in the shadows but vital to the success of a team.

Handlers in dog mushing are individuals with skilled knowledge and experience with Alaskan huskies. Duties of a handler include preparing diets (which usually involves hauling and heating water), chopping meat, feeding, scooping poop, laying down straw for dogs to bed down on when the team comes in, putting salve on feet and putting booties on; taking booties off and checking feet for tiny cuts and abrasions - called fissures - and applying more salve to feet; rubbing liniment on shoulders and wrists so they don't get stiff while resting; applying wrist wraps, jackets, and blankets to each dog to keep them warm while resting; setting alarms to ensure your mushers get back on the trail at their allotted time, raking straw up after the team gets back on the trail, and driving to the next checkpoint to do it all over again. All with very little sleep.

Handlers are diligent, are good with routine, following directions and the best handlers in mushing come with special skills, like the ability to back up a 20 foot dog trailer in a blizzard or navigate to remote checkpoints to meet their mushing team. A good handler will keep a musher focused and on task, and keep an eye on the clock to ensure mushers arrive at their mandatory mushers' meetings.

Finally, a good handler is a trustworthy ally a musher enlists for preparation of a dog team and their musher before, during and after a race. A competent handler is vital for mid and longer-distance sled dog racing.

On February 15, I left Ohio and headed to Gaylord, Michigan; I was charged with the task of handling for not one but two competitive mushing teams: my friends Larry and Joann Fortier who both ran the Midnight Run Dog Sled Race. When I arrived at their place, I was happily surprised to find winter there since winter has been largely absent from northeast Ohio this year.

The Fortier dog yard bathed in white
The next morning, we rose early and headed north and west toward Marquette, Michigan for the start of the race. It was quite warm - something pretty concerning heading into a dog race in February.

We checked into the Settle Inn Hotel and were surprised to find a canine companion greeting us at the front desk.

Aatu, which means "Noble" in Finnish
Soon it was time to head to the Holiday Inn for the mushers' bib draw and banquet. This is a highlight of the weekend because we get to see many musher friends from all over the Midwest and Canada that we don't get to see but a few times a year.

We had dinner and awaited the bib draw. Larry drew bib 101, which meant he would be the first Midnight Run team out of the starting chute. It's always nerve wracking drawing bib #1 because you don't have the scent trail of other teams ahead of you. Luckily the Midnight Run teams go out after the larger 12-dog teams in the 240 mile UP 200, so there is a scent trail. It seemed everyone at our table drew some of the first numbers!

From left: Chad Grentz, Larry Fortier, Joann Fortier and Joanna Oberg

The start of the Midnight Run is typically about 8 p.m. on Friday. We had a full night and day to mill around Marquette getting last minute items from the store and relaxing before the evening start time. Friday morning starts with the vet check, where every dog on every team is thoroughly checked medically to ensure they are healthy and race-ready.
Dogs are "heavily vetted" before each race. Here, a dog named "Ears" on Joann's team stands patiently while one of the members of the vet team listens to his heart. 
All the dogs checked out great! Now we just had to hurry up and wait for race time! This is probably one of the most nerve wracking parts of racing: waiting for the start. Your mind goes through checklists over and over: do I have all of my mandatory gear? Which runner plastic should I use? There is different runner plastic for sleds based on temperature, and sometimes temps can change drastically at the start of the race to the first checkpoint. Usually I intend to nap before the start of the race, but because I am a bundle of nerves, I am never able to. Joann was the same way if not worse!

Finally it was start time! We headed to downtown Marquette, ready to get everything set for Joann and Larry to hit the trail.
Larry's sled (left) and Joann's sled packed and ready for the race! Each race requires mushers to carry certain "mandatory gear" and each race's mandatories are different. Generally, mushers have to carry survival gear to get them and their team through should they become lost in the wilderness.  Items such as: compass, fire starter, spare headlamps, matches, cable cutter, first aid kit, sleeping bag, axe, food for the musher and enough kibble for each dog on the team. Competitive mushers will weigh each item within ounces to ensure they carry all of their mandatories with the least amount of weight in the sled as possible. 

The downtown start is unlike anything I've ever experienced. I've run the Midnight Run three times, and the downtown start is by far my favorite part. The main road is closed to traffic and covered with a thick, long trail of snow. Crowds of people gather on either side of the starting chute, music blares and people ring cow bells and cheer, and it's hard not to feel like a rock star! Handling duties prevented me from getting any real good footage of either Joann or Larry's teams leaving, but I managed to get this video of the UP 200 winner, Denis Tremblay from Quebec. 

As soon as Joann and Larry left, I had to pack everything up and head to the checkpoint in Chatham. Normally, that would involve driving their truck and 20 foot dog trailer in a blizzard. This year, however, unseasonably warm temps made driving the normally snow-covered roads easy. I arrived in plenty of time to get meat thawed and everything ready for the teams to come in.

But immediately, I noticed a problem. The parking spot where Joann and Larry's teams were supposed to camp for the night in the checkpoint was a solid sheet of ice. This was unsafe for numerous reasons - impossible for people to walk around the teams to care for dogs, and more importantly, dangerous for the sled to navigate across the next morning after the five hour mandatory rest.

A little after midnight, Larry flew into the checkpoint. Right on his heels, Joann came into the checkpoint, blowing past me because she was unable to stop or slow the team on the ice. We decided once they arrived to move the entire rig and dog teams to a different spot. Race rules prevent teams from being boxed in dog trailers at the checkpoint, so we delicately unhooked and carried each dog, one by one, across the parking lot where we rehooked them to each sled. Carrying 50-60 pound dogs across an ice rink at 1 a.m. was definitely not our idea of a good time! But it's all about the dogs, so like them, we put our heads down and did what needed done.

Once everyone was moved, we began the tedious and methodical process of feeding 16 dogs, removing booties, checking feet, rubbing shoulders, laying down straw and getting everyone bedded down for their rest. It's imperative to be efficient and get the dogs resting as soon as possible.

To be continued