Not all mushers race to win

DAWSON CITY For John Schandelmeier the Yukon Quest is a dog race. It’s not a career. And he’s not running for the glory.

DAWSON CITY

For John Schandelmeier the Yukon Quest is a dog race.

It’s not a career.

And he’s not running for the glory.

“I’ve run this race 16 times, and I can’t even remember how I placed five years ago,” he said.

“I can’t even remember if I ran it five years ago.”

Schandelmeier’s focus is the rescue and rehabilitation of sled dogs.

And he wants people to notice.

“These dogs would have been euthanized,” he said, rubbing lotion into a paw at the Pelly checkpoint.

“If I hadn’t taken them and trained them, they wouldn’t exist.”

Most mushers just don’t take enough time with their dogs. They want to buy a dog that works immediately, said Schandelmeier, who sees 950 sled dogs go through the Fairbanks Animal Shelter every year.

The trouble is, the big-name mushers aren’t going to pay attention to a 10th-place dog team like Schandelmeier’s.

And these are the guys whom he wants to educate.

“They might pay closer attention because I came in 3rd in the Copper Basin,” said Schandelmeier.

But even when he finishes in the top five, it’s hard to convince serious mushers that most sled dogs are salvageable.

“I run into mushers all the time who say, ‘Well, you might be able to do that with those dogs, but I can’t.’

“But it’s only a matter of time with dogs — it’s not a big mystery.”

Schandelmeier started massaging Hunter’s toe. The husky caught it in an ice crack and pulled a ligament.

“It may hurt a little bit, Hunter,” he said, working the joint.

“But it’s better than the alternative.”

Hunter was in the Fairbanks shelter for two months, and was on death row when Schandelmeier picked him up.

The whole team is well behaved, he said.

“They don’t bark and jump around, they just go out and do their job.

“And the people I pass on the trail might notice how well-mannered and well-trained they are.”

Schandelmeier’s team is so well trained he actually falls asleep on the sled.

“They know where to go,” he said.

And after working as a commercial fisherman, he can sleep anywhere.

“I used to sleep on boats curled up in the rain,” he said.

Pulling into Pelly, the dozing musher missed 29 boring kilometres of road.

“My wife gives me hell for sleeping, but if anything happens, I can feel it in the driving bow,” he said.

“Blind people race dogs.”

Although he sleeps on the sled, he refuses to sit down.

“When I have to put a seat on my sled, I’ll quit mushing,” said the 54-year-old, referring to the number of sleds with seats in this year’s race.

“I didn’t run dogs to sit down,” he said.

Dressed in bunny boots and worn parkas, Schandelmeier isn’t as high-tech as a lot of the mushers on the trail.

It has to do with his approach to racing.

“Before, mushers were trappers who ran dogs in races; now they’re just mushers,” he said.

But Schandelmeier is still a trapper at heart.

And he understands what happens when you fall into water.

“I don’t want to be out there drying stuff,” he said. “I want to wear whatever works. I’m interested in maintaining dogs, not me.”

And he’s doing a good job of it.

Schandelmeier is one of only three Quest mushers who have yet to drop their first dog.

Lumped together with Dave Dalton, Richie Beattie and rookie Mike Jayne, Schandelmeier is currently running in the middle of the pack.