Flying solo gets Quest rookie kicked out of race

DAWSON CITY Rookie musher J.T. Hessert has been kicked out of the race in Dawson. The 23-year-old Alaskan doesn’t have a dog handler.


Rookie musher J.T. Hessert has been kicked out of the race in Dawson.

The 23-year-old Alaskan doesn’t have a dog handler.

Or a house.

Home is wherever he parks the dog truck.

And it’s a mess.

“My sled is cleaner,” said Hessert in Pelly. 

Piled to the roof with garbage and old coffee cups, Hessert’s truck is still in Whitehorse.

“Lots of people said they’d handle for me,” he said. “But then they had other commitments.”

Without a handler, Hessert barely made it to the start line in Whitehorse.

Late to the gate, he had to wait until all the mushers had gone.

And he left two dogs in his truck.

“I’d never heard of him,” said rookie Mike Jayne’s girlfriend and handler Michelle Reakoff.

But after Hessert left the start chute, race officials approached Reakoff.

It turned out Hessert had listed her as the person who would pick up his dropped dogs.

“I guess he’d mentioned it to Mike,” she said. “But Mike was so busy getting ready for the race, he forgot to tell me.”

But Reakoff didn’t mind.

Compared to the 50 dogs she cares for at home, this is a holiday, she said.

But Reakoff is worried about Hessert’s team.

“He said some were neck-lining,” she said. Neck-lining is when a dog pulls back on the neckline and doesn’t want to run.

“I told him to drop them, but he didn’t,” said Reakoff.

“He said they can walk if they get really tired.”

“I feel sorry for the dogs,” she added. 

Hessert received a penalty for not cleaning up at checkpoints after his team left — something a handler does — so Reakoff took this on as well. She also shoveled out his camp in Dawson, but had nothing to set up.

“I asked him in Pelly if he had anything,” she said.

“And he said he didn’t.”

Usually, during the 36-hour layover, the dogs are bedded down on drop-chains under a tarp tent. But Hessert has none of this.

“I guess he’ll leave them on the gang line (they run on),” she said.

Reakoff shoveled out Hessert’s camp and spread out straw to help the dogs.

“Those poor dogs don’t know what they’re getting into,” she said.

“They don’t know if they’re going 10 miles or 1,000 miles. And they don’t know they have a 36-hour layover without a tent.”

Hessert appreciates Reakoff’s help and plans to give her some gas money.

“He thanks me whenever he sees me,” she said. “But the next time he does a race, he should plan things out a little bit.”

Reakoff was worried about getting Hessert’s dropped dogs across the border.

It turned out he’d left all his rabies certificates in his truck, with his wallet.

The truck was supposed to be in Dawson, but Hessert couldn’t find anyone willing to drive it up.

“I figured I’d just find someone in Whitehorse to drive it up,” he said at the Pelly checkpoint. But this didn’t work out.

And Reakoff heard a rumour that one of the guides at Muktuk Kennels, where the truck is parked, cleaned it out and threw everything out, including the rabies certificates and Hessert’s wallet.

“The truck will be here tonight at 8 p.m.,” Hessert said to race marshal Mike McCowan, on Thursday morning.

At the Dawson checkpoint, he was still trying to convince McCowan to let him finish the race.

Citing race rule 31b, McCowan told Hessert he was withdrawn  —  “you’re done, alright?”

“It isn’t anything negative toward him, and has nothing to do with his dog care,” said McCowan.

“We were just concerned about his preparation and how that would affect his stay here and further down the trail.”

He has no truck and no handler, said McCowan. “He was relying upon the good graces of a handler from another team, and had no one to drive his truck from here to Alaska for supplies or dropped dogs.”

McCowan waited until Dawson to make his decision, which leaves Hessert a Quest veteran, rather than a rookie.

“He’s here now, and he has 36 hours to make arrangements,” said McCowan.

Hessert didn’t react well, but McCowan didn’t expect him to.

There’s no rule that states a musher needs a handler, but it’s pretty much expected, said McCowan, who, in four years as marshal, has never seen a musher run without one.

“I didn’t have a handler lined up,” said Hessert.

“But it’s not even in the rules.

“And I didn’t see it as that big of a deal.”

Hessert has finished the Iditarod without a handler, but that race’s checkpoints are mostly fly-in only and handlers are not very common.

“I’m not the most organized person in general,” said Hessert, who was late for the Quest food drop, the start, the vet check and the musher’s meeting. The latter resulted in a $500 fine.

“I’m 23 years old, not that that’s an excuse,” he said.

“I’m just trying to get things together. And I made it across the starting line, and I’m here with my 12 dogs, so mission accomplished.

“There are only a few minor things, like not having a handler.”

Mushing over King Solomon’s Dome on his way to Dawson, Hessert was happy.

“I was having a happy run and was thinking of doing it again in two years,” he said.

Now, he is filing a protest, but it won’t be considered until after the race.

“I might just continue camping along the trail,” he said.

“Then I don’t even have to wait in Dawson for 36 hours; I might gain some time.

“And my dogs are well rested.

“It doesn’t make sense to have pulled me out of the race.”

“The race shouldn’t be all about multimillionaires who can afford it,” said Hugh Neff’s partner Tamra Reynolds.

“Someone said T.J needed a girlfriend,” she added with a grin.

“But with no house and 40 dogs living in his truck?”