Feature Stories

The Toughest Sled Dog Race In The World

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The Yukon Quest Trail is close enough to one thousand miles long that no one disputes its claim to being one of only two 1,000 mile sled dog races in the world – the other being the more widely-known Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. The distances are similar, but that is where the similarities end, for the Yukon Quest has far fewer checkpoints, crosses many more mountains, and the temperatures are more often extreme, sometimes even necessitating a change in the race route. In his book, Yukon Quest, The Story of the World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race, Lew Freedman wrote, “Some believe the Quest is the toughest race on the face of the earth. In truth, in any given year, the weather dictates whether that is a reality.”

There are ten Yukon Quest checkpoints, beginning in Fairbanks and traveling east to Whitehorse; the Iditarod has more than twice as many checkpoints along roughly the same distance. There are four checkpoints more than 100 miles apart, and there are over 200 miles between Pelly Crossing and Dawson City, with only a dog drop between them. The checkpoint names sing the history of the north country: Carmacks, Eagle, Circle City, Central…

The trail travels some of the
harshest country in the world
at the worst time of the year…

The Yukon Quest Trail climbs over four summits: Rosebud, Eagle, American, and King Solomon’s Dome; and it travels the upper reaches of the Yukon River, about which journalist John Balzar wrote in Yukon Alone, “… the ice rises, great broken walls of it, a jumbled labyrinth continuing for miles. Just as unsettling are the periodic open leads we see on the Yukon. Some are just cracks; others are geometric rectangles a hundred feet long where the ice has vanished and the wind froths wavelets on pure blue water.”

The Yukon Quest website explains that the race “was founded on the premise that a dog driver and his team should be a self-sufficient unit; capable of challenging varied terrain and severe weather conditions. The race is a living memorial to those turn-of-the-century miners, trappers, and mail carriers who opened up the country without benefit of snowmobiles, airplanes, or roads. It was their strength and fortitude that blazed the Trail over which most of the Yukon Quest travels.”

There is a palpable sense of history inherent in this great race, for the mushers and their teams literally run in the tracks of some of the greatest sled dog drivers of all time. The Yukon Quest Trail follows old gold mining and mail delivery routes across mountains, over lakes, and along the rivers of northeastern Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. The trail travels some of the harshest country in the world at the worst time of the year, when the land truly is, as Robert Service described it, “… locked tight as a drum.”

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Across frozen lakes and rivers, down creeks harboring dangerous overflow, over mountain passes which demand the teams almost defy gravity to cross them . . . The Yukon Quest Trail requires the highest caliber of skill and readiness from mushers and their teams. Many who start don’t make it to the finish. Those mushers who do finish have accomplished something to be proud of, a challenge daunting enough that few mushers ever even attempt it: The World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race.

This year the Yukon Quest begins in Whitehorse and travels north and west to Fairbanks. As the alternating start and finish line, the Yukon’s capital city has seen many dramatic moments played out over the years. In 2010 Hans Gatt matched Lance Mackey’s four wins while also breaking the record for the fastest finish with a time 23 hours shorter than the previous record, which had been set the year before by Sebastian Schnuelle. In 2012 Tok musher Hugh Neff claimed the championship with Allen Moore of Two Rivers less than one minute behind him. The following year, 2013, Allen Moore reversed the tables and beat Neff in the race to Fairbanks, breaking the record again, and repeating his win and his record-breaking speed on the Fairbanks to Whitehorse route in 2014.Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

Leaving Whitehorse the teams strike north through Braeburn, Carmacks, and Pelly Crossing, to fabled Dawson City on the Yukon River. At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, which started in 1896, Dawson was a thriving city of 40,000, the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Winnipeg, and those glamorous Gold Rush roots of this frontier town are still clearly visible. The building facades, fancy dormers and gingerbread details have not been added on for the sake of increasing tourist appeal; those are for the most part the real deal, dating from before the turn of the century.

… after several hundred miles the dogs and musher are both trail-weary and tired dogs are more likely to balk at the almost straight-up climb.

Prior to the 2015 race mushers would take a mandatory 36-hour layover here, but new rules this year dropped that to a 24-hour mandatory layover. Dawson City is the only checkpoint where mushers may receive outside help with their teams. The campground across the Yukon River becomes the staging area for the race, with each team assigned a campsite. The handlers will have set up the camp and dog shelters before each musher’s arrival. Rest, thorough vet checks, time differential adjustments, sled repairs, and rejuvenation for both mushers and their dogs are the goals, and after their layover each musher drives his or her team back onto the ice of the Yukon River and continues the journey down the Yukon River toward Fairbanks.

While the mushers are making their way along the Yukon River to Eagle and beyond, the handlers, media, and many others are making their own trek by road. As team after team heads out onto the frozen Yukon River, the handlers driving the big dog trucks set off in the opposite direction for a 1,000-mile drive to Circle City, because the mushers are now in territory only accessible by air, snowmachine, or, of course, dogsled.

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The mushers say there are benefits and drawbacks to both directions of the race, primarily based on the daunting climb and downhill slide that is Eagle Summit. Most mushers don’t like seeing that formidable physical and psychological barrier near the end of their race—not that it’s any easier at the beginning, but after several hundred miles the dogs and musher are both trail-weary and tired dogs are more likely to balk at the almost straight-up climb. Adam Killick described it in Racing the White Silence: “Eagle Summit is the Heartbreak Hill of the Yukon Quest. It’s where mushers find out whether they have run the race intelligently or whether they have been running out of their league. It is a thirty-degree climb up the side of a mountain and it is reputed to be the hardest section of trail on a sled dog race anywhere.”

After crossing Eagle Summit there’s just one more tricky negotiation, descending Rosebud Ridge, and then the teams take a well-earned mandatory rest before traveling the floor of the Chena River Valley into Fairbanks. They’re not home free though, because the valley is criss-crossed with trails and littered with distractions, and more than one musher has gotten lost in the last few miles before the finish.

It’s a special kind of joy to be standing in the chute on the Chena River when a musher comes in after their thousand-mile run over the Yukon Quest Trail. It’s an achievement which brings a satisfied smile, and a weary but accomplished glint to a musher’s eyes, knowing they’ve just finished the race they set out to run and have conquered the toughest trail in sled dog racing.

[Excerpted from The Yukon Quest Trail: 1,000 miles across northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory, by Helen Hegener, with photos by Eric Vercammen and Scott Chesney, published in 2014 by Northern Light Media.]

 

Story by Helen Hegener

Photos by Albert Marquez / Planet Earth Adventures

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