It's a dirty job but some dog handler has to do it

by John McHutchion
News reporter


Kevin Lupo slowly reaches down and scoops up an armload of straw off the snow and turns to deposit it in large plastic garbage bag.

Spread out around him are scores of sandwich bags half-filled with leftover dog food, piles of discarded dog booties and the remnants of pair of used black sled runners.

Such is the life of a handler in the early and later stages of the Yukon Quest - relegation to cleanup duties.

It won't be until the race reaches Dawson City for the mandatory 36-hour layover that the handlers get to move in and actually touch dogs or lend assistance to their musher.

So, for now, it's Lupo's job to clear up this mess in the wake of the departure of his musher, Old Crow's Stan Njootli, from this tiny town.

A walk through the dog yard at any of the checkpoints reveals the Quest has become something of a traveling version of the United Nations.

While English tends to dominate when handlers chat, a listener can hear plenty of German because at least six of the mushers who started this year's Quest speak the language. A few words of French can also be picked up.

Lupo speaks English but his slow drawl reveals roots somewhere in the deep southern United States.

"Greenville, South Carolina," offers Lupo, adding that it's a fairly large city of a few hundred thousand in the northwest corner of the state.

So how does a guy from big-city South Carolina end up wrangling dogs in a tiny and remote village in the North?

Through a place called the Center for Interim Programs located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he says

The centre arranged for a handler from the US to handle dogs for Njootli last year, and Lupo got selected to go this year.

The solidly-built, tall 20-year-old knew about the center because a friend of his got a chance about six years ago to handle for repeat Iditarod champion Susan Butcher.

Lupo recalls he spent his childhood weekends on a farm outside of Greenville where hunting dogs were frequent companions.

But until his adventure began last April - with his arrival in Old Crow - the southerner had never been around a sled dog.

At first, Lupo regarded looking after the dogs as simply a chore that was to be tolerated. He doesn't hold that point of view any more.

"It's a part of life now," he says.

After starting out with working around the kennel, Lupo has learned enough about the dogs to be totally comfortable when taking a team out for training runs even in the most bitterly cold temperatures.

On the Quest trail, handlers follow the rule of "hurry up and wait." They hurry to each checkpoint along the trail and then spend hours either waiting for their musher to arrive or to depart.

Meanwhile, they keep an eye on the dogs, assess the welfare of their musher, and maybe even grab some sleep.

That doesn't mean Lupo's Quest has been boring. His father made the trip up from South Carolina to Fairbanks to see his son and share the excitement of the dogs and the crowds on start day.

"It was the most exciting thing in his life," says Lupo.

Unfortunately for the young handler, the Quest trail won't last forever and neither will his time in Old Crow. He has a seat booked on a home-bound plane for March 10.

"I'm ready to go see my family," he says, adding he's not ready to return to the big city after several months in Old Crow.

So what about coming back to the North some day to get together to get a team of his own?

"I hope to," he says. "I caught the bug."