Its -15 Celsius (about 8 Fahrenheit) and the sled dogs are happy. This crisp weather is just how they like it to run the Yukon Quest, a grueling 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska.
This race of endurance and heart, reputed to be the toughest in the world, traverses four mountain ranges during the coldest months when temperatures routinely reach -45 C. and can plunge to a killing -60 C.
This is the 28th year for this punishing test of dog and musher and, this morning at 8:30, the dog yard (the parking lot in front of Whitehorse’s Shipyard Park) is a frenzy of activity. Dog mushers and their teams unload dogs from small, cube-style cages custom-built into the backs of pickups or tr
ailers and clip them to guide wires. They begin the laborious process of feeding them special diets of warm broth, premium power-packed dog food, freshly cut meat (lamb trimmings, poultry skins, hamburger, moose, or salmon steaks), corn oil, seal oil or mink mixture, and vitamin, mineral, and probiotic supplements. These long distance runners will burn 10-14,000 calories each day and need a high-calorie diet to sustain them.
The dogs, ranging from Alaskan huskies to mixed breeds, are surprisingly small and wiry. Bred from stock that thrived during the Klondike Gold Rush, no other animal matches them for endurance and performance in extreme Northern conditions. Much like human marathoners, there’s no excess fat on these dogs and they’re in excellent physical condition. Some of them, especially the younger ones, bark or howl and leap excitedly. The veterans are calmer and wait patiently for breakfast.
After eating, the dogs are loaded back into their cozy cages to keep them warm while the teams load the sleds. The mushers need to carry everything they and their dogs will need for 10-14 days in the frozen back country, including food and dry straw for dog beds. (Mushers also have planned food pickups at specified locations.)
The public and members of the media are allowed into the dog yard for the first couple of hours and the mushers and their dogs good-naturedly tolerate the questions and cameras. An hour before race start, we’re booted out to allow the 25 teams entered in this year’s race to harness the dogs and line up for the start. My cheeks are cold and I can’t feel my fingertips. We gratefully head inside for a cup of hot coffee and a much-welcomed chance to warm up.
By 11 o’clock, the fence along the chute start area and the surrounding hill are lined with fans. I’m lucky enough to have access in the chute area to take photos and it’s exciting being so close to the teams of dogs and mushers, volunteers, and race officials.
Under the race start banner, it’s an ear-splitting cacophony of barking. A half dozen orange-vested volunteers lead each 14-dog team and sled, one at a time, up to the start line. The dogs pull against their tethers, eager to start the race, and a strong three-man crew strains to hold back the sleds.
The dogs are outfitted with criss-cross harnesses that go across the back and evenly distribute the weight of the sled and musher. All are wearing booties to protect their feet from the ice and snow. Each team will go through 1,000 or more of these (at about $1 per bootie) during their 1,000-mile marathon. The dogs health is of utmost importance to the mushers and race officials. Seventeen vets, all volunteers, check the dogs out before and throughout the race at 10 specified checkpoints. The vet teams are equipped to handle most issues and, if they can’t, the dog is pulled. (Mushers must start with 14 dogs and must end with at least six.) The vet teams can order dogs flown out for more extensive care.
As the clock counts down, many of the mushers come forward to ruff ears and give a few last words of encouragement to their lead dogs. Some of the dogs, especially the younger ones who are barking and leaping in excitement, already have frosted muzzles. More experienced dogs sit quietly, conserving their energy, and waiting for their masters ‘Go’ command.
Suddenly, it’s time as the announcer counts down 10… 9…8… The volunteers release the dogs and jump back 5…4…3… The men holding the sled let go 2…1…Go. The musher releases the break, shouts ‘Go,’ and the dogs explode forward.
It’s a blur of 56 booted feet, lolling tongues, legs and backs pulling together. The sled whooshes past lightening fast. A roar of applause, shouts, and cow bells join the din. The musher raises a mittened hand in acknowledgement and high-fives a few spectators who reach out. As the sled rockets down the snowy track, churning a rooster tail of snow, the crowd falls quiet and the soft padding of sprinting paws and the shoosh of the sleds runners crackle in the crisp air. At the first turn, the musher rides the break to keep the team in check and then the sled slips around a corner and is gone.
Moments later, and every three minutes for the next two hours, the volunteers lead another team into the chute until all 25 teams have launched.
When the last team slips down the trail out of sight, we pile into the SUV, excited, and exhilarated by the start. We head out of Whitehorse to the Takhini River. By the time we reach the broad, frozen stretch of water, fans have already gathered. The atmosphere is like a country picnic. Some have trudged cross the knee deep snow carrying lawn chairs and thermoses of hot drinks. One group has built a fire and is roasting marshmallows. Children and parents pass the time waiting for dog sled teams to pass by piling up flat chunks of ice into crude igloos.
Suddenly a rustle goes through the crowd. A dog sled team has rounded the corner and is coming straight toward us. Cameras at the ready, we line the track, trying to get as close as possible without interfering with the team. The dogs are running strong, mouths open, tongues out. Unlike at the race start, the dogs aren’t barking; they’re focused, concentrating on surging forward. This musher’s beard is already frosted, his mustache and the hair around his mouth covered with a thick layer of ice.
As he swooshes past, he raises one hand in thanks to the well-wishers. And, just as quickly, the team slips around the corner out of sight. We wait, talking with other fans, as one-by-one, the racers glide past. Most of them look good, strong, healthy, determined. They have many miles to go before they rest. We’ll catch up with them in a couple of days in Dawson City where they have a mandatory 36-hour layover to rest and recoup.
The drive between Whitehorse and Dawson City on packed, icy roads takes more than six hours. I’m tired as we roll into this historic Klondike gold rush town and cruise snowy streets fronting turn-of-the-century Western buildings and wooden sidewalks. A Yukon Quest banner welcoming the sled dog teams is stretched across the main street into town. The Visitor’s Center has been turned into checkpoint central and a few mushers loiter on the porch. Several of the mushers’ kennel wagons with their now-empty dog cages are parked in the parking lot and along snow-covered streets.
Most of the mushers are camped at the dog camp just across the frozen Yukon River. It’s here that the dogs are thoroughly checked out by vets and mushers have their first real opportunity for a rest longer than a few minutes or a few hours. Still, the priority for the mushers is making sure their dogs are healthy, rested, and well-fed.
It’s 10 p.m. and our bellies are full from a delicious Greek meal at the Drunken Goat restaurant. My friend, Mark, and I walk the couple of blocks to Main Street to the Visitor’s Center and the center of race activity in town. This is an important stop-over for racers because the first musher who makes it to Dawson and ultimately finishes the race wins four ounces of gold worth more than $5,000. This year, Hugh Neff is the front-runner, beating his competitors into Dawson City by nearly three hours.
It’s also a mandatory 36-hour rest stop for mushers and their teams. It means the front runner, Neff, will pull out at a little after 3 a.m.. Right now, Mark and I and a couple dozen fans, volunteers, veterinarians, reporters, and photographers huddle in the Center waiting for musher Wade Mars, who’s expected to pull in any time.
An orange-vested volunteer stands outside the Visitor’ Center pulling on snow pants. “Are you going to be here all night?” I ask, feeling the -17C (1 F) chill creep into my bones despite the double layer of long underwear and thick wool pants I’m wearing.
“We have an idea of when the teams are coming in,” she says smiling, her cheeks red with cold. “But we can’t be sure. The gps spotting isn’t perfect and we’ve got to be here when they come in.”
Translation: she’ll be here all night.
The volunteer watches for signs of Mars’ headlamp, so she can alert the rest of the check-in team. Down the street, a handful of photographers from local papers jockey for position and test their settings to capture the moment.
Suddenly, there’s a faint flash of light. It’s Mars. He wheels his team, still running strong, under an old rail trestle, and glides onto Main Street. Volunteers and fans clap and cheer. Mars’ fur-lined hood of his polar jacket is pulled tight around his face against the cold. As he brings the team to a stop, his cheeks are bright pink and his eyes shine with excitement and fatigue. There’s a dog snapped into the sled basket, snug under cover with just its head stic
king out. She’s ill or exhausted and will likely be dropped here in Dawson to be cared for by the vet team and transported home by her handlers. The other dogs look amazingly fresh, despite having run for hours. The only sign they’ve just completed a long and tough leg is frost on their muzzles.
Race officials check over the sled and the vet team gets busy unloading the dog to be dropped and checking out the health of the rest of the group. They look good. Mars will run them across the Yukon River ice bridge to the mushers’ campground. Then, before he rests or gets something to eat, he’ll feed his dogs a hot meal and spread clean, dry straw for them.
Throughout the night and into the next day, mushers continue to arrive at the Dawson checkpoint . One rookie musher hadn’t packed enough dog food and was forced to hit the panic button on her gps before reaching Dawson City. She and her team were picked up by snowmobiles, disqualifying her from continuing the race.
Michelle Phillips, a popular local musher who was running in the top 10, also pulls out at Dawson. She was down to only eight dogs, only two more than the required number to finish the race. Since the toughest part of the race is yet to come, including the treacherous 3,652 foot Eagle Summit, Michelle was concerned that continuing with such a small team would be too hard on the dogs. She chose to pull out and save them for the upcoming Iditarod.
Early the next morning, we hop aboard a little Cessna to get a sense of the trail and terrain the Yukon Quest mushers face. First, we fly over the dog camp. Orange tents dot the campground and we see dog teams bedded down for their mandatory stopover.
We head down the Yukon River. In the summer, this mighty river roars with silty gray glacial water. Today, it’s frozen over with only a few spots of open water. We spot a dog team heading north up the river toward Eagle. Then another and another. From here, they look like tiny toys in the vast landscape.
We bank over town and head into the hills, passing huge piles of gold mining tailings that look like ripples in a giant white blanket. Dawson City was the site of the legendary Klondike Gold Rush and the environmental damage is still evident. Pools of toxic water, green or eerie yellow, filled with chemicals and heavy metals that won’t freeze even in the coldest conditions, dot the hills. We fly over Dredge #4, a behemoth stream-driven earth-eating machine used in mining. In the summer, this industrial monster is open for tours by Parks Canada.
As we cruise low over tree-covered hills, the landscape becomes much steeper. Finally, we spot the Quest trail, a twisting snake of snow that winds through the hills, seemingly endlessly. This is the route the mushers will take to Eagle, over three steep mountain ranges and, ultimately, onto Fairbanks. It is treacherous, unforgiving landscape.
The next day, as we head back to Whitehorse, the snow is blowing sideways and an icy wind has dropped temperatures to -20 and colder. Wade Mars, who we’d watched ride triumphantly into the Dawson City checkpoint nearly a dozen hours earlier, was forced to turn back by the fierce storm and he’s dropped out of the race.
Other mushers didn’t fair any better. Hans Gatt, a four-time Quest champion, and his team fell into deep, icy water known as an outflow and had to be rescued by another musher. He was only one of many who scratched due to bad weather, ill or tired dogs, and incredibly difficult conditions. Hugh Neff, who held the lead for many miles and, for a time, looked like a sure winner, also dropped out. In the end, rookie Dallas Seavy, 23, who grew up mushing, came into Fairbanks first to claim the top prize.
He’s only one winner. After seeing parts of this grueling race, watching the dogs, and talking to mushers, the veterinarians, and some of the hundreds of volunteers that make the Yukon Quest possible, I know there are no losers here. There are only heroes who test the limits of dog and musher on this lonely trail.
Note: The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is held every February, alternating starting between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. For more information, check out www.yukonquest.com.
by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor