Jerry Joinson and his team during the 2014 Yukon Quest 1

Epic journey – take two

Jerry Joinson and his wife Lisa Joinson had another epic journey when Jerry raced the Yukon Quest 1,000 for the second time.

So why would a dog musher subject himself to frostbite, exhaustion, and dangerously steep terrain not once, but twice?

For the adventure of course.

In 2011, Jerry Joinson of Fort St. James journeyed to the Yukon to race in the Yukon Quest 1,000, a 1,000-mile sled dog race between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. It was a challenge which resulted in hallucinations, the loss of a dog before the race started and was some of the most challenging weather the race had seen since it began in 1984.

So in 2014, Joinson went back, to do the race again, this time from the opposite direction (the race alternates directions, and in even-numbered years, it begins in Fairbanks, Alaska).

Joinson had been told the route was easier beginning in Fairbanks, because a musher went over some of the toughest mountains with fresher dogs, before over a week of hard running had worn the team down and the last time, his dogs were not well, having caught a dog flu while they were training.

So he and his wife Lisa Joinson, who was going to race the Yukon Quest 300 this time herself, doing 300 miles of the same trail with her team, had trained and planned and saved to make the journey to do it again.

The challenges began before they had even left, with the dog handlers who were going to accompany them dropping out, but luckily Lisa had gotten an offer from someone else to come and help handle for her if she needed, so she made arrangements for the new handlers to meet them up north.

Then the truck broke down – and the story begins to sound like a bad country music song.

Then their dogs became ill, very ill, having picked something up while training on Fairbanks area trails, but they hoped for the best and kept on preparing for the race.

“They got so skinny it was unbelievable,” she said.

One of Lisa’s dogs ended up having exploratory surgery to find out the problem, as she nearly died from an infection which resulted from the illness. The dog was on an IV for seven days and cost nearly $2,000 in vet bills to save, after wasting away before their eyes until the vets would manage to figure out the issue.

“The stress was unbelievable – before we even left,” she said.

All this taking place as the race was about to start and then as the race started, it was still going on, with Lisa thinking most of her dogs were recovering and two of Jerry’s still a bit ill.

Lisa started her race with dogs so weak, by 60 miles, they couldn’t even walk up hills, and she had to scratch.

“That was just the start,” she said.

Lisa said she immediately switched roles to become Jerry’s handler, and began dealing with the logistical side of the race, supporting him at the checkpoints.

“I think Lisa had a harder time this time than I did,” said Jerry.

“This was no fun for me at all,” said Lisa, of the experience. “This was a big survival event.”

But she held it together, sometimes with zap straps -literally.

Their bank cards wouldn’t work and the credit cards had been frozen because they had neglected to inform the company they were leaving the country.

She could get cash from one machine in the whole town, and with vet bills and vehicle bills in the $1,500-$2,000 USD per day range, it was a difficult situation for her.

Her handlers, who were volunteering and supplying their own vehicle, ended up loaning the pair money to get them by.

Meanwhile, on the trail, Jerry was facing his own challenges.

The trail conditions were like racers had never seen before on the Quest, with barely any snow this year, and rain having hardened the snow.

“On the road, if you go to a skating rink, they wouldn’t’ have ice as good as that,” said Jerry of parts of the route.

Where normally there were frozen rivers and creeks, instead this year, there were gravel bars and open water sections in between iced sections.

Several times Jerry was up to his knees in water.

Temperatures would fluctuate widely, meaning he had to adapt and try not to get too hot, as later on the sweat would make it hard to keep warm overnight.

One morning, the temperature was -47 C when he left the checkpoint, by 10 a.m., he was down to his long underwear, that night at the next checkpoint, the temperature had dropped to -58 C.

This year, while not as cold for as long, he ended up with frostbite on his nose, hands and toes. He finished the race on February 14, when he spoke to The Courier on March 19, he said he was just beginning to get the feeling back in his hands.

“It was really damp, I couldn’t dry out,” he said.

But this was not the worst of it for Joinson.

The toughest challenge were the sleds.

At Eagle Summit, the toughest and steepest of the peaks the dog teams have to go over, he came up over the sharp ridge and before he could begin to prepare for the descent, his dogs had turned down the steep face.

“I had no problem going up,” he said. “Lots of fun coming down though.”

In seconds, Jerry’s sled was flying through the air over top of his dogs.

“I could see my wheel dogs down below me,” he said.

Then he tumbled with his sled, over and over again and ended up on his side, sliding down the hill, holding onto the runners.

“I could have swore I was still holding onto my handlebars … I have no idea how that happened,” he said.

Then, near the Alaskan border, going over some hummocks, on the hard trail, Jerry broke one of the runners on his sled.

Not realizing right away it was broken, he kept going, and ended up having to limp the sled to the next checkpoint, with one dog loaded in the sled.

“That was a challenge,” he said.

The sled would come to a sudden stop when the broken runner dug in, sending him and the dog on the sled flying.

He was really tired and when he arrived at the next checkpoint, he said “I’m done.”

But with the encouragement of an official, he traded his sled out for Lisa’s, and decided to keep going.

There was some confusion over the time penalty for trading out the sled, and in the end, the officials dropped the penalty.

“When you’re tired, you don’t always know all the rules,” said Lisa.

Then, a reroute to avoid an open river led to a corner with a steep hill, and Jerry’s wheel dogs were going down the other side before his sled was even up the hill.

“Being as nimble as I am …” he said, describing jumping from his sled and being flung into a tree, breaking off a two-inch diameter tree and then hitting a 10-inch diameter tree.

“And that’s where my sleigh stuck, about six feet off the ground,” he said.

While he was able to pull it off and get his dogs back together, then another 90-degree corner caught him off guard.

He slid down on his butt, his sled was stuck in another tree, destroying the sled and tearing his sled bag, which holds all his gear on the sled.

Jerry had to go back to the highway, wait for eight hours, and was given another sled and sled bag, this time he had to take the eight-hour penalty.

“There again I was ready to scratch,” he said.

Lisa, another sleigh and the dog truck were brought to where he was.

She reassured him the dogs were healthy and fine and he was doing well.

But despite the frostbite, crashes and broken sleds, he said it was less difficult in some ways than in 2011.

“Actually I had a much better time this time,” he said “I think I slept more during the race than I did during the training season.”

During training, he was getting about three hours of sleep a night, but during the race, waiting for his gear to dry, he would get about fours hours, and he took better care of himself.

“He was really severely dehydrated during the race in 2011,” said Lisa.

In the end, Jerry finished the race second to last, but with the addition of his time penalties – one for dropping a dog with not enough food because he knew the checkpoint had food and he needed to keep enough for his dogs on the trail and one for changing sleds – his official place was last, winning him the Red Lantern Award.

Another epic journey, and one he said he won’t be repeating.

But he said that last time.