Not many people can say they’ve completed their life’s quest, but Jerry Joinson can.
Joinson has recently returned to the Fort after completing over 1,000 miles of gruelling physical endurance, sleep deprivation and extreme weather conditions during the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race.
Sounds like fun, well, apparently, for some people, it’s a life’s dream.
And not only is it a tough race at the best of times, but this year, Joinson said the conditions were the worst ever.
Over the second half of the race, “everything that could go wrong did,” he said. There was water overflowing places on some of the river sections, where mushers normally cross over ice and snow.
Some of the front-runners in the race had to wade their dogs and sleds through chest deep water in extreme temperatures. According to Joinson, one musher who had won the Quest four times before almost died twice crossing these sections.
Luckily for Joinson, he was more than a day behind these mushers, and after -56 to -58 degrees Celcius for a couple of days, that water had frozen when he arrived and all he got was one wet foot when he stepped down to help the sled.
These extreme temperatures came during the second half of the race, and temperatures ran in the -50 to -58 degree range for four solid days, according to the Joinsons.
Jerry’s wife Lisa Joinson and their 11 year old daughter Lexi had come up to “handle” for Jerry.
While no one can directly help the mushers, handlers have to be on hand at certain checkpoints along the race to pick up any dogs the racers drop due to injuries or health problems. Their other job was encouragement, urging Jerry on, when all of the hardships coupled with operating on one to one and a half hours of sleep started to take its toll.
But the Joinson’s troubles didn’t even just start when the race began.
After training in the Fort since September, on January 1, they left to drive up to the Yukon for Jerry to begin his final stages of training and preparation.
But that day, the axle broke on their trailer, leaving them stranded on a holiday, in the first of a series of misfortunes that caused the trip to take an entire week and cost $1500 in repair bills.
While he was in the Yukon, his dogs contracted kennel cough, two lead dogs were injured in fights, one having to be put down it was so severely injured, and yet Jerry persevered.
Once the race started, the hard-packed trail and difficult snow conditions which caused the sled to drag much more than usual meant his dogs and himself struggled with joint injuries for the first half of the race.
He was forced to drop five dogs with wrist and shoulder problems.
But things weren’t all bad.
“After that, other than the cold, it went good,” he said.
Teamwork helped Joinson through some tough parts, and some strong friendships were formed in the process.
When the race left Dawson City, a blizzard started and some mushers got lost. He and five of the other mushers made an agreement to stay together through the blizzard and break trail for each other.
The group managed to push each other through, and Joinson said one man who almost scratched felt compelled to keep going because two of the mushers pushing on with them were women.
Those two women were Tamara Rose and Kyla Durham, who also helped Jerry through another critical stage.
At one point in the trail, making his way up Eagle Summit, it was so steep Joinson could reach out and touch the slope in front of him standing up.
“If my knees weren’t shot I could have made it up on my own,” said Joinson. But his knees were done for and so in order to get his heavily laden sled up the hill, he had to walk and would have had to try and help push the sled up as well for his dogs.
With his knees how they were, this wasn’t possible. So the two women, after getting their own dogs and sleds up to Eagle Summit, came back down and while one led the team from the front, the other pushed Jerry’s sled from behind while he made his way up the climb.
But Joinson also learned some useful skills on the trip.
Apparently, after many days of getting only one or two hours of sleep in unheated shelters, sometimes sitting up in a seat with nowhere to even lie down, mushers typically begin to nod off on their sleds, developing the skill of holding on even while asleep.
Eventually, mushers also hallucinate, and Joinson said he would see obstacles in front of the team, and then they would simply disappear as the dogs ran right through them. At one point, Joinson said the dogs began to look like cartoon animals in front of him, and he even experienced strong feelings of deja vu along the trail at places he had never been before.
“It was fun,” said Joinson, after he realized what was going on, “I started to enjoy it after awhile.”
Most of the other mushers also suffered from frostbite on their faces, but Jerry considered himself lucky to escape with just a bit of frostbite on his finger tips.
So other than the lack of sleep, hallucinations, physical pain and -50 and lower temperatures, it was pretty decent.
He finished the Yukon Quest sled dog race on February 18, after 13 days three hours and 22 minutes. He was twelfth overall.
It was his second attempt at the Quest, having scratched in 2009 when at the beginning of a 200 mile section between checkpoints, two of his dogs were hurt when his team went over a river bank and had to be put on the already heavily laden sled. The next part of the trail was a long uphill which the other dogs would have had to carry all the extra weight through, and his injured dogs were in pain so he had to retreat despite all the hard work and preparation.
“It was agonizing'” to quit said Joinson, but he knew he had to scratch for the sake of his dogs.
Now that he’s completed the Quest, Joinson said he plans to slow down from racing and his next challenge is going to be building his wife a greenhouse.