There are bunches of us out there. We are faceless, nameless, behind the scenes and often under appreciated. We are under estimated, overlooked and even disregarded. We’re dirty, tired and wore out. We can do a crap job, and I mean that literally, like it is nobody’s business. Who are we? WE ARE HANDLERS!!!
It is a travesty how handlers are overlooked in this sled dog business. We are an integral part of the team and yet, we rarely get credit. Well, I’m done with being faceless and nameless. I’m petitioning the government to make A Handler’s Day. We will run with the motto, “Have you hugged your handler today? If not dammit, get to it!” Seriously, how many famous handlers can you name? Why is that? The guy/gal that spent countless hours on the runners helping to prepare the team for race day gets no credit? Why do you have to stand on the runners at a race just to get a name and a face? Why aren’t musher’s presented as a team? This is Bob Mushy and his handler Joe DoEverything.
It amazes me how many of us come back to handle year after year. When you look at the job, it really makes you wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. Most dive into this with a Jack Londonesque vision in their head. They start the job with visions of moonlight runs and being on the runners all day. However, Jack London was never a handler. So on day one new handlers will typically hear the loud screeching of a needle going across an old vinyl record. This is when the dream is interrupted by glimpses of horror.
It can start with your accommodations. The quality of where you will stay for 6 months can vary widely depending on who you were fortunate or not so fortunate to hook up with. Here’s your yurt with your woodstove. Yes, you must keep it burning when it’s -20 below and the wood is stored outside right next to the outhouse. There’s a foam seat for when it gets really cold. Here’s your musty basement that you’ll share with three other people; hang sheets if you want privacy. Here’s your shed with no heat or water. There’s a small electric heater that can kick out pretty good, but it will wake up all the black flies. Here’s your non-private room in our house. You can eat meals with us otherwise stay out of our sight. Here’s your private quarters with all the amenities. Holy crap, pinch me this can’t be real.
Once you’re settled in, the chores begin; which is usually the same day. You’re given a scoop; not even your own. Just a plain old public scoop. Don’t try to be innovative and change the scoop to be more ergonomic either because mushers are set in their ways. They are mushers not engineers. Just use the damn scoop they give you no matter how ridiculous and back breaking it might be scooping up after oodles of dogs. Yes, you are supposed to clean up after 60 dogs with a shovel; you’ll master it in no time. It’s all about the wrist action.
If you’re lucky you’ll get to run dogs, but many find themselves never getting the opportunity to run the dogs. They literally just take care of the yard. Scoop in the AM, water dogs, feed dogs, scoop in the PM. There’s a stimulating life. Months on end of the same old poo (pun intended). They are sure to develope Poomopia – a curable mental illness caused by daily and constant interaction only with poo. These poor folks start to talk about poo, analyze the poo and even talk to the poo. They are starving for anything not poo related.
Now if you get to run dogs this can be a blessing or a curse. Again, Jack London is a fraud. He obviously never had to work for a meticulous, obsessed, demanding and partially nuts musher. The sheer volume of inane rules that come with running someone else’s dogs blows those dreamy moonlight runs to pieces. If you are handling for a race team, you quickly learn that nothing is for pleasure; it always has a purpose and if you’re enjoying yourself, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!! You’ll also learn that Jack London never had to drive an ATV in pouring rain day after day in December in 34 degrees. FUN!! He missed that part! If you are a married handler, folks will be surprised to learn you even know how to run a sled. They won’t believe you actually race yourself and train the dogs too. Yep, the musher does it all by his/herself …. you just show up for the fun!
The new handler is excited about the alluring opportunity to travel with a team and handle at a race. What a crock of baloney that is. You envision excitement and fame! You experience boredom and maltreatment. Yep, nothing is more fun than going 36+ hours without sleep and being yelled at like you’re deaf every time you see your musher. I’m talking serious fun there. You are on your feet constantly out in the cold and by the time the race is over your entire body hurts, you can’t do simple math and your face is puffy. You will get NO sympathy because everyone thinks you sat around and napped for 36 hours; it was the musher that went through all the tough stuff. Doesn’t it sound like fun to spend hours WAITING? The highlight of your day is to rake up some straw or re-organize the meds. You are living a real adventure if you get to dry and sort a hundred booties. However, the real topper for me has always been cleaning out pee saturated boxes. It is beyond explanation to stick your head in a box and almost pass out from the ammonia smell, but you have to get in there to get it out. Then getting it out without getting it all over you; that takes a special talent. I haven’t acquired it yet. When I’m done, I have wet pee pee straw in my hair, all over my coat, my gloves and even on my boots. It is so much fun I want everyone to try it just once.
So after you’ve been sleep deprived, covered in pee/straw/dog hair, sat bored out of your mind for hours on end you must then endure the wrath of your musher. You can rarely do anything right. You don’t run fast enough. You are NOT running in the right direction. You must know where they left something 5 hours ago; why don’t you have ESP? Lord help you, if you moved something during your organizational activities. If a dog spills his food, it’s your fault; why weren’t you watching. Then PLEASE don’t ask a question. For gosh sakes get a brain!
Yes, this is a peak into the life of a handler. Why do we do it? Where is the joy in this? The joy is simply working with the dogs. The heck with the mushers and all their primadonna ways. We are in it for the dogs. It’s because of the dogs most of us come back to do this year after year. Some for the same teams and some just keep jumping from one to the next trying to find that team that will treat them with respect. Those poor souls. A handler can find themselves living the life of a nomad searching for that elusive “perfect team”.
This is why I ask you, “Have you hugged your handler today?” If not, get er done! Show some love and respect for these hard working dog lovers. They make your life easier doing what you love to do and deserve to be in the limelight and not the shadows!