Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Schandelmeier's ADN piece on trackers

I'm in London doing work-y things (workshop on strengthening the internet against pervasive surveillance, Internet Engineering Task Force meeting).  It's a long trek from Alaska, and while I was in transit John Schandelmeier published an article in the Anchorage Daily News questioning the value of GPS tracking in dogsled racing.  I actually agree with him substantially but think he's really not addressing a few things that matter a lot.

John is not the first racer I've heard or read saying things along these lines.  I expect that it is incredibly annoying to be on the trail and away from people, the world, etc., but to see a red light blinking at you hour after hour after hour after hour.  In addition to a general sense of being unable to disengage from the clutter, of one thing of which I have absolutely no doubt is that some number of people carrying trackers on their sleds feel like they're under surveillance.

I also think it's an open question what value they bring to the races.  It's certainly less of a question in the case of Iditarod, since they seem to be making a profit on tracker subscriptions (I'd also argue that there are more people running Iditarod with marginal trail skills who need to be kept an eye on than there are in Quest, but I suppose that would be overly argumentative).  With Quest it's less clear that it's led to a substantial increase in financial support from fans, particularly given the state of the purse over the past few years.  And, of course, fan overreaction to things that they see in the trackers, plus managing the PR aspects of real problems in real time, increase both the workload and stress level for race staff.

And to be sure, there is no substitute for physical presence and human interaction.  Over all these years, hands-down and by a large margin my favorite race spectating experience was last year at the Two Rivers checkpoint.  Hugh's tracker was off and while we knew where Allen was we didn't know if Hugh was ahead of him, behind him, ... ?  So there was a crowd, mostly handlers and people from the dog-savvy Two Rivers community, waiting at the checkpoint to see who'd be the first in and the likely winner of the 2013 Quest.  There was a lot of chatter, a lot of suspense, and a lot of camaraderie as we waited.

That said, there is more than one way to experience the race, and I wouldn't denigrate the experience that people who cannot be here, who don't run dogs and don't know winter, are having as they follow along from home.  As I was flying out yesterday/last night/whenever the heck that was (it all runs together ... ) I looked down on the landscape, and the trails that go on for miles without ever crossing a road or encountering a town, and once again I realized ridiculously lucky I am to be able to live in Alaska.  Most people don't, and most people can't.  They come up and visit and have, I'm sorry to say, staged, inauthentic experiences, but somehow it captures their imagination and they fall in love with the romance of the place even if they can't quite engage Alaska directly.  Following the races is one way for them to keep the romance alive.  I'd argue that's a good thing, even if it's not really got very much to do with what Alaska is actually about.

But still, one of the things I've been hammering on is that the data and the trackers do tell some stories, if you care to watch and listen.  Unfortunately is down right now but when it comes back up I'll post a bit of John's track from this year's Quest, where we did get to watch a story unfold and did get a sense of what was happening.  He was traveling with Matt Hall (and really, somebody has to have a word with the unfortunate PR people who were handling the Quest's Facebook page and were turning every instance of people traveling together into a race).  We watched them stop, leave the trail, go some distance, turn around, rejoin the trail, and stop again (here's an excerpt from Matt's track; John's looks much the same).  So, while we don't know what they looked and felt like, we do have some idea that they ran into some tough trail and we watched them deal with it.

Similarly, I think a lot of people following on the GPS tracker remember standing up and screaming at their computers while watching Rob Cooke on Eagle Summit last year.  We watched him motor on up, pause, and turn around.  This is a case where it was much less clear what was going on (it looked possible that he was having problems but it turned out that he had so little difficulty going up he thought he must have left the trail, and turned around to find it) but it was emotional in any event.

So no, it's not at all the same as being on the trail.  People are working with woefully little information and sometimes they don't understand what they're seeing at all (and this is where race organizations can be doing a better job, to head off overreaction and to help fans understand what they're seeing).  But they're having a different kind of experience and have their own level of emotional involvement in it.  John and others may not value it as highly as they value direct trail experience (and I wouldn't, either), but it's real and it's meaningful.


  1. With respect to John Schandelmeier, I don't think he has any idea what the experience is like for those people who aren't in Alaska and can't be there first hand. I also don't think he realises that coverage of the race gets better and better every year and just how much information is making its way out of the Yukon during the race. If he thinks it's just the trackers, then he isn't paying attention.

    Of course there are people who are just watching the tracker blips and forming very little picture in their heads as to what's actually going on, overreacting to every little glitch, and not having any idea what it's actually like on the ground. They just see computer dots moving along.

    But there are also a great many of us who use the trackers as just one of the tools available to us - supplemented with video, Emily Schwing's most excellent audio reports, photos, first-hand reports from people on the ground, musher's blogs, musher's spouse's blogs, musher's handlers blogs, tweets, FB, etc - and you start to piece together a reality. Is it the same as being there? No, of course not, but we do the best we can.

    As you mentioned - John and Matt's overflow experience on the Yukon before Dawson was one where - from the trackers - all we saw was "strange" movement on the river. Later you listened to Matt Hall describing the situation and the pride he had in his lead dog... and yup, because of that we know his lead dog is named Keeper - who says we know nothing about the dogs involved? ...and you can only imagine what it was like and "what you might have done".

    Similarly, when Brian, Mandy, and Jerry found themselves in the same boat about 12 hours later, what struck me most (in another Emily Schwing interview) was Mandy saying later "there's no way I could have dealt with that on my own in the dark".

    When Brent was making his final push, I remember thinking "can he possibly pull this off?" and then hearing (yet another) Emily Schwing piece from Carmacks - it wasn't much - all you could hear was a bleary-sounding Brent in the background and although he might not have been doing so good, from what he was saying, his dogs were still doing great. And you started to think "maybe he CAN pull this off??".

    You watch the trackers, you do the math of run/rest, and if you're following along in real time, you do get a sense of the vast distances, just how long it takes to travel those distances at "dog speed". You watch those little blips and you wonder at what's happening. How are they feeling? How are the dogs feeling? Which dogs are performing? Can the musher really pull off the balancing act of so little sleep with so much trail time? And if he can't, when might it come back to bite him?

    You listen to the interviews with the mushers talking about which dogs led when, which dogs were performing well, which dogs were struggling, which dogs were dropped, why they were dropped, how that affected the team, ...and on and on.

    You watch the video and listen to the crunch of the snow in the dog lot when it was -30°F in Dawson, you listen to the weary sound of the mushers' voices at checkpoints, and you try to extract every last snippet of information that you can out of the resources available to you.

    Is it the same as being in Alaska, being on the trail? No, of course not, but we do our best.

  2. Thanks elsietee
    You have written much better, my taughts, on this matter. The trackers often point to a story, the needs to be told, to us dog sled racing watchers.

    I hope John takes the time, to write about his experience of this Yukon Quest race, on his wife's "Zoya's kennel journal" blog. Because that will help tell the story, of all those green blips on the tracker map.

  3. I just found this, and understand where he is coming from. I really do, but what he doesn't understand is he has the real authentic experience. This is as good as it gets for us, and like elsietee I don't just sit and watch the tracker. I read, listen and absorb as much of the look and feel of the trail as I possibly can. The Quest fb page does a wonderful job with pictures and videos. I use the tracker to see the elevation plots and the analytics are great. Not a video game to me, it's real. I bet I know more of Slaver's Roadhouse history than many Alaskans. BTW John, how's Mudflap?