Ed Hopkins makes some repairs to Michelle Phillips’ dog sled at the dog yard in Dawson City on Feb. 6 during the 2019 Yukon Quest. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

Dawson City is a balance of calm and chaos during the Yukon Quest

“The guys have been in and out of the hotel room and I didn’t hear a thing — I just slept solidly”

For teams running the Yukon Quest, the 36-hour mandatory layover in Dawson City is a welcome respite from the trail.

Mushers get the opportunity to take a hot shower, sleep in a warm bed and eat hot meals, while their dogs rest and recoup under the watchful eye of their handlers.

The dog yard is on Bonanza Road for the second year in a row.

Thanks to river ice conditions and the well-publicized difficulty in creating a safe ice bridge, it may be the new normal rather than the traditional West Dawson location.

The yard itself is impressive in scope.

Like a miniature tent city, it springs up overnight just in time for the arriving dogs.

Spaced out in neat rows, each team has its own plot housing an open-ended tent lined with straw for the dogs and most also have an enclosed tent for handlers and mushers to rest in — many even equipped with wood stoves.

The dog tents are by and large A-frame designs, built from 2x4s and covered in tarps. Although the ends are required to be open as per race rules, many teams stack extra hay bales at one or both ends to help cut the wind.

Walking through the yard is surprisingly relaxing.

Most dogs are bedded down on straw inside their shelters, curled up dozing under their jackets.

Outside, the tent handlers work steadily preparing meals for the dogs, making adjustments to the sleds and keeping things in order.

There is always a steady flow of dogs being walked around the yard, one at a time by handlers, making sure the dogs stay loose and don’t cramp up when the time comes to leave.

For all the relative peace and quiet at the dog yard, the downtown is buzzing.

Dog trucks drive slowly up and down the streets, ferrying the occupants from their hotel to the dog yard to the checkpoint and everywhere else they may need to go.

The restaurants and bars are bustling — there is no shortage of hungry, thirsty people looking for refreshment — making it all the more remarkable that mushers are able to recharge at all.

Rob Cooke, a veteran musher from Whitehorse, arrived in Dawson with his 13 Siberian huskies in the morning on Feb. 6 and had a day consisting almost solely of eating and sleeping.

“I think I’ve slept and eaten,” said Cooke later that evening when he was at the dog yard for his team’s second feeding. “We trucked the dogs across — made sure the dogs ate and had their mandatory check — then went across (and I) grabbed a quick shower.”

Then it was off to breakfast for Cooke and — in a move that would make Peregrin Took proud — second breakfast.

“(I) went and had breakfast, and then straight away had lunch, which surprised the waitress I think,” said Cooke with a laugh. “Then (I) went to bed. The guys have been in and out of the hotel room and I didn’t hear a thing — I just slept solidly.”

For veteran Brian Wilmshurst and rookie Jason Biasetti, Dawson City is not only a layover but home as well.

One of the two, it seems, is having more luck resting and recouping than the other.

“I wish I was at home resting — that’s what I should be doing,” said Wilmshurst. “You go home, and I see all the chores. Like, oh man, I need to chop firewood and shovel some snow and it makes me crazy.”

Wilmshurst said he’s trying to rest, but that the siren song of the city is not helping.

“Well I’m trying not (to work),” said Wilmshurst. “I’ve slept three hours so far, so I’m doing alright. … It’s a party town, Dawson is, so everyone wants to have a good time. I just want to get out of here and back on the trail.”

In an almost perfect counterpoint, Biasetti said after the chaotic leadup to the start of the Quest, the 36 hours in Dawson is a nice break since his team has got things under control.

“Plus I had two good friends from my hometown fly up. So I haven’t been able to spend much time with them obviously because we’re doing the Yukon Quest, but it was great to come in and see them and just give everybody a bunch of hugs.”

Biasetti recently ran the Copper Basin 300 and has been spending a lot of time in Whitehorse for things like food drops and vet checks. He said he’s only spent four days or so at home in the last few weeks.

“They’re taking care of it,” said Biasetti. “When I got here they took care of everything, which was perfect. I needed that.”

While the rest and relaxation is appreciated, mushers are almost all anxious to get back onto the trail.

Yukoner Michelle Phillips, who left Dawson at 11:51 p.m. on Feb. 6, said she was ready to leave when the time came.

“I’m ready to hit the trail,” said Phillips. “You kind of get anxious. You feel like it’s time to hit the trail.”

Brent Sass, 2015 winner who left Dawson before Phillips at 11:24 p.m., said the rest is nice but the race is about the trail time.

“It’s always better to be out on the trail,” said Sass. “I’m stoked to be here and stoked to get out of here, too.”

The time goes by quickly, especially if you don’t want it to, he said.

“Every race is different but sometimes if you’ve got some dog issues that you just want to be here (for), it just goes by super quick,” said Sass.

Mushers have 310 miles (500 kilometres) before they’ll see their handlers again after they leave Dawson.

It’s 150 miles (240 km) to the fly-in checkpoint at Eagle, Alaska, and another 160 miles (260 km) to Circle City, Alaska, where they’ll again reconnect.

After a musher leaves Dawson, their handlers have to tear down and clean up the site in the dog yard and begin the 1,700-km trip to Circle in order to be there ready and waiting when the teams start to arrive just days later.

Concert roadies eat your hearts out.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

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