Photo: Katie Orlinsky
Dog musher Kristin Knight Pace runs Hey Moose! Kennel, a long-distance dog racing kennel in Healy, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and 13-month-old daughter. Kristin has spent the last five months running her much loved dogs in preparation for her second Yukon Quest, a renowned 1000-mile dog sled race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Dubbed ‘The most difficult dog sled race in the world’, conditions can be dangerous and temperatures as low as -70F.
From blizzards to run-ins with 2000lb bison, Kristin shares an insight into what life as a dog musher entails.
Photo: Kristin Knight Pace
Every single one of our dogs is a loved member of our family. We have seen every single one be born. We’ve brought them into our home and our hearts and raised them with the utmost love and care. We are so invested in every last one of them, they are our whole lives. They each have such personality. You can see them all on our kennel page where we have pictures and descriptions of everybody. Most of them are enjoying their newfound jobs as babysitters, too! Except Solo. Haha.
From very shortly after birth, training begins. The pups are handled, brought inside and played with. We want them to know and trust us right away. Throughout their lives they will be hugged and touched by us, tourists, veterinarians, etc., and they have to be very well socialized. We have a long tradition of having all the neighbourhood children over to hold them and play with them and take them on walks. Around the time they start exploring and walking around, they start going on walks out in the tundra. First they are short, just around the puppy pen. Then, as the pups get stronger and more curious, we climb hills, cross creeks and play in all the conditions they will see as they become part of the team.
Photo: Katie Orlinsky – Kristin and Piper at home
Mushing is incredibly physically active (I am not seated or sitting down). The skill and power it takes to manoeuvre a sled around trees, jumble ice, glare ice, up and down summits – it takes literally everything you have. Sometimes you’re pushing your sled up inclines so steep that you are pushing the runners up above your head. And you spend hundreds of miles braking. The dogs want to go so fast that you have to keep them at a nice, slow speed to avoid injury or burnout. The brake is the only way you have of pacing the team. And if there’s no snow, like on the 2016 Iditarod, you’re at the mercy of your dogs. In my case, they were merciless! We chased every wild animal you can imagine. They were having the time of their lives while I was terrified, clinging to the sled for dear life.
That year, I was mushing through a notorious section of trail known as The Burn. A wildfire burned through there years ago and because there isn’t any vegetation to hold the snow when the wind blows, it’s often snowless. I had 15 dogs in my team when I went through The Burn in 2016. They all began barking excitedly, holding their noses high, wagging their tails, alerting each other to something up ahead. There was no snow, so I couldn’t slow us down. I thought to myself, you cannot let go, you cannot fall off, just hold on and become a part of the sled.
As we came up over a rise, to my horror there was a massive, 2,000-lb male wood bison to the right of us, just off the trail. The dogs freaked out. The bison casually sauntered out in front of my team as we surged ahead at breakneck speed. Then, he just stopped. Broadside. Right in the middle of the trail. I said out loud, “Well, this is happening.” And then the first four dogs in my team just smacked right into his ass, jumping on like a pack of hyenas. One of my dogs, Loretta, looked back at me, eyes huge, as I yelled to her “YOU DID THIS!” The Bison began to stomp and snort, and I thought for sure this was the end for all of us. Then, as he went one way into the woods, Solo, my beloved soulmate lead dog, pulled with all his might in the opposite direction as literally everyone else lunged after the bison. It was singlehandedly Solo who saved us from destruction, as he finally convinced the rest of the team that staying on the trail was best. However, for the next 70 miles, the dogs barked and surged and chased every scent, sure that there was another bison ahead that they could terrorize.
Needless to say I wasn’t very happy with them, but they knew I was powerless and that they could do whatever they wanted. I was just the idiot along for the ride.
A typical day
Photo: Kristin Knight Pace – The home Kristin shares with husband Andy and daughter Ada
Early morning: Baby breakfast, water hauling and prepping food
At 6.am the baby wakes up. In other words, we all wake up. It is still dark. Right now the sun rises around 9.am. and sets at 4:30 p.m. Temperatures can be from -60F to +50F, the Alaska Range has crazy weather. Once the temperature went from 40 below to 40 above in a single day. We get snowed in often, in fact we’re snowed in right now! Usually this huge west wind comes, and everyone in the neighborhood knows it’s THE wind, and we have a phone tree where we all call each other and say Get out now! So we drive about a mile away and then either walk, ski or snowmachine back home. Sometimes it’s weeks before we can get road access again.
The first job of the morning is to heat water on the stove to soak morning breakfast for the dogs. We don’t have running water, so we haul water from a neighbourhood well house every other day. We can’t drive in to our house for much of the winter, so it’s an involved process of snowmachining a sled full of water cubes a mile out to where our truck is parked, loading the water cubes in the truck, driving to the well house, filling everything up, driving back, putting the cubes back on the snowmachine sled and coming home.
At 8-o’clock an amazing friend comes over to either help with the baby or help with the 34 dogs, who we feed a delicious morning meal of meat, fat, kibble and hot water. Then I chop meat for tonight’s dinner for them. The meat comes in 50-lb frozen blocks, so we chop off about 10 lbs per bucket (3 buckets to feed 30 dogs) and let it thaw all day in cold water. Then we add hot water in the evening to melt the fat and incorporate everything (probiotics, supplements like bonemeal and psyllium) into a warm, nourishing stew.
Photo: Katie Orlinsky – Kristin with Andy and dogs
9.30am: Harness up the dogs while they’re crazily excited
Next, I harness and bootie the team of 12-14 dogs for today’s run. We have an ultramarathon training schedule, so we’ll mix-up long, slow runs with short fast runs, runs up hills, trailbreaking runs, etc. We try to have plenty of variety because that’s what we’ll see on the race trail. Hook-up is the scariest part of a run because the dogs are so insanely excited to go. One time they pulled the tree the sled was tied to right out of the ground!
Over the years I’ve gotten better at staying calm during hook-up and trying to teach them to be patient, but they are SO ready to go from the second they see me pull out their harnesses.
We run pups loose with the team starting at about 3 months old. That way they can run alongside the adults and see what everything looks like and get familiar with all the sounds and smells of the sled, dogs and trail. Then, around 6 months old, we’ll run them loose with a harness on and leave open spaces in the team. You know a dog is ready to be a part of the team when they insert themselves in the blank spaces in the team (or sometimes run out in front of the team confidently). They are always the ones letting us know whether or not they are ready to be in the team and we follow their lead.
Photo: Katie Orlinsky – Racing dog, Piper
Running the dogs for 50 miles
We run the dogs for 5 or 6 hours at this point in the season, which is 50ish miles. We alternate running from home (we have about 50 miles of trails from home before the rivers freeze up, and after they freeze we can literally mush anywhere in the state from here) with loading the dogs up in the dog truck and going to new places.
Mushing is an incredibly dynamic sport, and you can go from working the hardest cardio and strength workout of your life and sweating bullets to standing still on a smooth, frozen lake in a single minute. Because of this, your layering game has to be strong! I wear a merino wool baselayer, fleece pants and top, insulated puffy pants and down parka, plus two layers of gloves, two layers of socks and two layers of boots (one Norwegian wool inner boot and NEOS waterproof overboot).
If it’s really cold (-30F or colder) I have an Icelandic wool sweater my mother-in-law made that I’ll put over my down parka, and over the top of that I’ll put my giant anorak with fur ruff. The temperature during the races I’ve run can fluctuate between -70F to +40F and you have to be ready for those extremes or anything in between. You also have to be ready to put on snowshoes and stomp out a trail ahead of your team if the snow gets too deep. Once, while I was on a patrol with the Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels, my patrol partner Jessica and I snowshoed 60 miles in front of the dogs after getting caught in a massive storm that dumped 3ft of snow.
Photo: Scott Chesney – Kristin at Dawson City, the half-way point of the 1000-mile Yukon Quest
Drive to work at the Denali National Park
My office is 30 minutes away from my house, so I drive to get there. I’m a wilderness planner for Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Denali National Park and Preserve. I write wilderness stewardship planning documents and ensure that activities taking place in both parks comply with The Wilderness Act and other laws and policies. I help people find wilderness-friendly ways to accomplish their work, whether it’s a construction project or scientific research. I was a backcountry ranger in Denali for 6 years before getting this wilderness planning job, so I’m able to use my knowledge of the wilderness to enable projects to be completed with the least amount of impact.
I finished my degree in photojournalism in 2006 with a project on working dogs. Shortly after I graduated, I got an internship at the Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels, where I worked with 35 beautiful Alaskan huskies for the summer. While I was there, I met the real mushers, the ones who stayed on for the winter and ran dogs on patrols up to a month long in Denali’s vast wilderness. They were all women. I wanted to be one of them. Several years later, I am!
5 pm – Leave work, feed the baby and feed the dogs
One of us feeds Ada dinner while the other feeds the dogs. The dogs eat about 10,000 calories a day at the height of training/during a race. Depending on how far we’re running and the temperature, the dogs have a snack every 1-2 hours on a run, and then have a full meal after every run. That doesn’t include breakfast and dinner.
Photo: Andy Pace – Kristin, Ada and Dusty
By 8pm I finally cook adult dinner, wind down for the night and get ready to repeat. If The Voice is on, we’ll go to bed after that! Haha. Usually around 10 pm.
Preparing for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race
As the season progresses and the miles increase, I’ll be taking a furlough from my National Park Service job. We’ll get the dogs up to running 8-10 hour runs before the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race, which begins on February 3, 2018 and goes from Fairbanks, AK to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
This year’s Yukon Quest will be my third thousand-mile race. I ran the 2015 Yukon Quest and the 2016 Iditarod. Both race trails are absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful and remote and chock-full of hazards. The Yukon Quest has four major summits to climb up and speed down. Eagle Summit has a four-story elevator drop on the backside of it. Every year, the Yukon Quest changes direction, so this will be the first time I’ve run it from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. Running the opposite way, from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, in 2015, I had to go UP Eagle Summit and have an epic video of my lead dog, Littlehead, just totally slaying it. She is incredible. She has so much heart. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, having this tiny little girl step up and take my whole team up and over this giant mountain 800 miles into the race.
Running a thousand-mile race is the pinnacle of dog mushing. It takes years of preparation, and before you can even sign up you have to qualify by running hundreds of miles of shorter distance races (200 or 300 miles). Then you have to train appropriately, usually by running 2,000 – 4,000 miles in training before the race. You have to take absolutely excellent care of your dogs. There’s no way to make a sled dog pull. These dogs will not work with you if you don’t take amazing care of them. They have to want to do it and you have to all work together as a team.
Photo: Scott Chesney – Kristin 20 miles into the 1000-mile Yukon Quest. Temperature: -40F
The Yukon Quest trail requires the best of you in terms of preparation and survival and wilderness skills. You are not allowed to receive outside help whatsoever or you will be disqualified – Mushers are allowed to help each other and that’s it. The only time others can help you is at the halfway point in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. There is a 36-hour mandatory layover there and your handlers (friends, family, husbands, wives) can take over the dogteam and love on them while you get some rest. Then it’s back on the trail.
Yukon: Camping and caring for the dogs
The Quest has 9 checkpoints over the course of 1,000 miles, some of them up to 200 miles apart. That means we spend a lot of time camping on the trail, which is the best. After running about 6 hours, we’ll pull over on the side of the trail for a 6 hour rest. I snack my dogs, take all their booties off, bed them down on straw and get my cooker going. It takes 5 gallons of snow to boil down to 1 gallon of water. I’ll get 3 gallons of water going at a rolling boil and then pour that over the top of the frozen chunks of meat, liver and fat I’ve already cut. I’ll let it soak for a while to soften everything up and melt the fat.
While it’s soaking I’ll go through my team and massage every dog, working down from their shoulders, triceps, wrists, back, quads, hamstrings and paws. I’ll put ointment on everyone’s paws. I’ll put insulating coats on everybody. Then I’ll feed them, feed myself and finally pull out my sleeping bag and put it next to my two wheel dogs (the dogs closest to the sled), Hoss and Bullock. I get into my -60F bag with all my clothes on, boots and everything, and snuggle up next to Hoss who rests his gigantic head on top of mine and breathes slowly and peacefully until I fall asleep. I’ll usually sleep 1 to 1.5 hours. Then I get up, get my sled packed, put booties on all the dogs’ paws, give everybody a nice fat snack of turkey skin or beaver, and head on down the trail for six more hours.
Photo: Kristin Knight Pace – Last run of the season
The last time I ran the Yukon Quest it took me 12 days and I came in 15th place out of 26 competitors. There was only one other woman who finished with me, one of my best friends, Ryne Olson. We ended up running the Iditarod together the following year and finished side by side in 11 days. Some of the best, closest friendships of my life have been forged on the trail, schlepping through thigh-deep rivers, crashing into ice boulders the size of refrigerators, dragging down mountain faces… these gals and our dogs and I have been through it all. And one of the coolest parts about the sport is there is no difference between males and females, everyone is in this together. All that matters is how good your dogs are and how good you are at surviving.
On the weekends the schedule looks a bit different, since that’s when we’ll do longer campouts with the dogs, running for hours, camping out on the trail for 4 hours, then repeat. We’re still figuring out how to do all of this with a 13-month-old baby, which is baffling most of the time and very, very hard.
Photo: Alistair Maitland – Kristin with leaders Littlehead and Solo at the 2015 Yukon Quest finish line
Kristin is writing a memoir with Grand Central Publishing which will be out in March 2019. In the meantime you can follow her on social media via www.instagram.com/heymoosekennel and www.facebook.com/heymoosekennel and by visiting the kennel website at www.heymoosekennel.com.