BRAEBURN LODGE, Yukon Territory - Deborah Bicknell paced nervously, her dog team in harness a few feet away but separated by an invisible wall.
Minutes earlier, on a clear, crisp Yukon night last Wednesday, the team had arrived at this remote outpost on the North Klondike Highway - the last checkpoint in the 2004 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. There were Peaches and Raven in the lead, trailed by five other dogs that Bicknell, a veteran musher from Juneau, had raised from pups.
But Bicknell was not guiding them; under race rules she was not allowed even to touch them. Like a parent sending their child off to college, Bicknell - at age 58 unable to undergo the extreme rigors of another Quest - had handed control of her dogs to Thomas Tetz, a neighbor and fellow musher who could push them, teach them and get them to the finish line in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
"I trained this team for the Yukon Quest, and I wanted them to go over the finish line," Bicknell said. "I couldn't do it physically - it had beat me up too much. When I talked to (Thomas, and he agreed) to do it, I was like, 'Yes!' "
Deborah Bicknell started mushing more than 45 years ago in New England. After moving to Juneau - with a climate and geography not conducive to mushing - she stayed with the sport by maintaining a training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory.
Bicknell entered the 2000 Yukon Quest and won the Red Lantern Award as the race's last finisher. After training a new team, she entered the Quest in 2002 and again last year, but scratched both times. The Quest, which started in 1984, is a 1,026-mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse; it switches directions each year, and this year finished in Whitehorse.
Last year, particularly harsh trail conditions caused Bicknell to withdraw. She has one artificial and one rebuilt knee, and suffered from the jostling caused by stumps, rocks and ice.
Bicknell knew she wanted her team to finish a Quest, and knew she could not accomplish that goal on her own. So in mid-December she turned to Tetz, who runs a neighboring kennel in Tagish.
Tetz, who finished third in the past two Quests, did not have a team ready to compete this year. So - despite the relatively short notice - he started training with Bicknell's dogs and left the Quest starting gate on Feb. 14.
Bicknell and her husband, Sandy, helped sponsor Tetz and served as the team's handlers. Handlers care for dropped dogs - dogs that, for fatigue, injury or other reasons, must be left behind at checkpoints. They also are allowed to build a camp for the team at Dawson City, the race's halfway point where all teams must complete a 36-hour layover.
"I work on the dogs (at Dawson), feed them every two hours, walk them every two or three hours," she said. "That's where we're really instrumental."
Aside from that, all other contact between handlers and teams is forbidden during the race.
From a starting team of 13, Tetz had dropped six by the time he reached Braeburn, leaving him with one above the minimum required to finish the Quest. That's why Bicknell was nervous at the final checkpoint.
"I was worried last night," Bicknell said Thursday afternoon in Whitehorse, after Tetz crossed the finish line.
"We couldn't get near the teams because of rules, so I didn't get to see them, didn't know how they were reacting. ...
"But (Thursday) morning, they were leaning forward (waiting to leave the checkpoint). They looked better."
Tetz finished in ninth place, with a total time of 12 days, 2 hours, 49 minutes. Race winner Hans Gatt finished in 10 days, 17 hours, 54 minutes.
"It was exciting to run this team," Tetz said at Braeburn. "There are definitely some good dogs. ...
"They're not 100 percent yet. They're young, but (running this race) was opening a door for them."
Bicknell said she is looking forward to taking them out on the trail.
"They've been pushed beyond what they think they can do," she said. "Now they know they can do more. ... They've matured on how to handle a difficult trail."
And while she missed mushing in the Quest, Bicknell said one early-race incident confirmed her decision. Veteran musher William Kleedehn - another of Bicknell's Yukon neighbors - broke his leg when his sled slipped on bare ice.
"I do miss being out there," she said, "But what happened to Kleedehn - that's one of the reasons I didn't want to do this."
Looking to the future, Bicknell plans to run some short races with her team in the next few weeks - particularly since she is planning to sell many of her dogs in the near future.
As she moves away from racing, Bicknell said she would like to keep working as a Quest handler and, possibly, join the Quest board to work toward race improvements based on her trail experience.
But on Thursday, as she loaded her spent team onto its transport truck and distributed snacks to the dogs, Bicknell was savoring this year's achievements.
"It feels fantastic," she said. "They look great. ... Thomas did a great job. He was very professional in knowing when to run them and when to rest them."
For more information about Bicknell and her team, look on the Web at www.deborahsyukonquest.net. For more on the Yukon Quest, visit www.yukonquest.com.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.