My eyes popped open bright and early Saturday morning – I literally couldn’t wait to head into town to watch the preparation for and start of what is not only considered to be the most challenging sled dog race in the world (far more difficult than the better known Iditarod) but also what is considered by some to be the toughest RACE in the world!
The Yukon Quest, as it’s called, has been run annually for the last 30 years between the cities of Whitehorse and Fairbanks (the starting city trades off every year – I was just lucky enough to be in Whitehorse at the right time). The course stretches more than 1,000 miles, winding along an unimaginably remote trail that follows the historic transportation route built and used during the 1890s Klondike gold rush. It crosses frozen lakes and rivers and climbs over four separate mountain ranges. The weather is dangerously extreme (a wind chilled temperature of -100F was recorded at the summit of Eagle mountain in 1988, for example) and support for the competitors is extremely limited (self reliance being one of the founding doctrines). The fastest mushers typically make the journey in just a little over 10 days, with the less experienced participants clocking in 14-20 days after the race begins - that is - if they succeed in completing the race at all.
I arrived at Shipyard Park before it was fully light, and as I entered the gate to the preparation area, I overheard one of the volunteers giving two ladies some useful information and so inserted myself in the conversation in order to leverage the responses. Since I arrived in Whitehorse, I’ve become used to the locals being amazed that I had come all the way from Texas to visit, but when I heard one of the women explain that the pair of them had come specifically for the race all the way from SOUTH AFRICA, I felt that I must respectfully yield my crown of distance.
I began meandering around the sizable enclosure, watching with rapt attention as one after another of the special mobile kennel trucks designed specifically for the sport pulled into their designated spots to begin preparing for the start of the race. These customized trucks (and sometimes trailers) are highly individualized and it was great fun to inspect each of the vehicles closely since they differed greatly in appearance, luxury and sophistication. One feature I particularly liked was how the doors of each kennel are often decorated with special cut out shapes that allow the dogs to see and smell the world outside (See the dog head shaped portals on the photo above?). Each bay is filled with fresh straw and sometimes holds two dogs instead of just one.
I watched as the dogs were removed one by one from their grassy nests (that’s one of my favorite mushers, Abbie West, unloading her team at right). They are very quickly attached to leads that are anchored to each truck because their enthusiasm is apparently boundless. As soon as they're liberated, a wave of territory marking begins, but support team members stand at the ready with shovels and buckets ready to mitigate the mess as much as possible. The dogs' state of excitement begins to build immediately, resulting in a cacophony of joyful and strange noises, much like that of teenagers poised for an adventure with their closest comrades.
As preparations such as sled packing, list checking, and repairs are being effected, groups of official race veterinarians are making the rounds, carefully evaluating the fitness of each and every animal as well as using a hand held scanner to verify the dog's identity via implanted computer chip. One thing that becomes obvious right away is that everyone involved in this sport absolutely LOVES dogs. I think it’s a common perception (and indeed a total misconception) that this sport borders on animal cruelty. What I learned is that the truth of the matter is the exact opposite - these are in fact some of the best cared for and loved animals you’ll ever run across. The dogs love, love, love to pull and run, and far from suffering, they are absolutely jubilant. I also realized this sport really isn't about the humans - it's almost completely about the dogs, and they are trained and pampered as endurance athletes. The mushers pretty much just provide adult supervision and care for the animals.
That's not to say that there aren't a few rock stars in the mushing world - there seemed to be plenty of excitement generated by some of the mushers. I was able to chat with several of them, and found them all to be very accessible and friendly. I soon developed a couple of favorites and by the start of the race found myself cheering loudly for two of them: Abbie West and Christina Traverse (great name of a cross country athlete, eh?). I was also very impressed with the number of participants that are women and pleased that quite a few of the competitors are definitely not spring chickens!
A few things to tell you about the sleds: mushers pack up to 250 pounds of food, water, gear and supplies in their sleds, and if they choose to rest on the trail, most remove the contents and crawl inside the canvas bag to sleep. Some models are called "tail draggers" and have a small unit on the back of the rails that can be used as a seat, but that is also capable of carrying additional supplies. The rear module is also oftentimes used as a sort of cooking chamber that allows the dog's food to be cooking on the trail so it'll be ready to serve at the next stop. Teams are typically rested every four hours and each dog consumes - are you ready for this - 12,000 calories a day!
You can see several other important items on the back of this sled - a foot/hand brake (blue metal contraption between the rails) and a dragging brake (the musher hops off of the rails and onto the black t-shaped piece in the middle). There's a third braking system that you can see in the photo of the tail dragger above - two large and serious looking grappling hooks. Each hook is tied to the end of rope, and one hook/rope is attached to each side of the sled, which is more clever than it sounds. When the two brakes are tossed out in opposite directions simultaneously, they quickly form a triangle: the two hooks which become anchored in the snow form the left and right base corners of the triangle and then as the sled coasts to a stop, the nose of the sled forms the top most point of the triangle. You can also see at the photo on the left a yellow coil which is the polymer track that is applied to sled runners to help them glide more easily over the snow. As with skis, there are different "temperature" rails, depending on the condition of the snow. I like it that the musher at left has a large temperature gauge attached to the back. Every bit of data they can gather en route is crucial.
|Sleds are secured to the trucks after the dogs are hitched up.|
|Handlers guide the team to the starting line|
|Look at this goofy dog leaping into the air - they get so excited!|
|You can just hear them whining, "Come on, come on, come oooooooonnnnnn,,,,"|
|My other favorite musher, Susie Rogan has a quiet and intimate moment with her lead dogs as she waits to move to the starting gate|
After several hours of milling about, I left the preparation area and found a spot along the start line where I could watch the mushers depart, each sled separated by three minutes. It was really entertaining to watch how hard how many people had to work to keep the dogs from running away with the sled before their official start time. After a sled is loaded and the dogs are hitched up, it is tied securely to their mushing support truck to prevent calamity (see top picture in above column). As the sleds begin to queue up and are removed from their trucky anchors in sequence, it takes on the order of 10-14 handlers, often one for each animal, to restrain the dogs. Each handler is forced to hold on with all their might while the musher rides the drag brake. When the dogs reach the starting area and are must wait their turn to depart, they bay and howl and bark and vocalize, leaping in the air, lunging forward, even chomping mouthfuls of snow in frustration. When finally the time comes, they go hell bent for leather in their little booties (the booties are to keep the snow from sticking to their feet), grinning broadly.
And off they go. A thousand miles. Oy vey!
The Yukon Quest has a wonderful interactive tool that gets updated constantly via GPS showing each mushers position and statistics. I've enjoyed checking in on Abbie and Christina the past couple of days and feel certain I'll keep up with them until the end of the race. It didn't take me long to get attached!
After all the teams were away, I stopped at a food trailer in the parking lot and had some really, really bad ass Greek fries: seasoned fries sprinkled with feta and topped with tatziki. Oh my gosh they were delicious!
The Quest still had one more wonderful surprise in store for me, though. On my way out, I ran into a gal I had heard described earlier as being "dressed up" but wasn't quite sure what to make of the description. I knew right away when I spotted Dolly from a distance that she was dressed up. I made a bee line toward her and as I got nearer I could hear that she was performing a fine rendition of "Proud Mary" by Ike and Tina Turner, only substituting the word "Yukon" for river for added relevance. After her serenade had concluded, we chatted happily for a few minutes before she had to dash off to spread more fabulousness, our meeting sealed with a big bosomy hug. I think if had been dark, you could have probably seen an effect much like two Tesla coils arcing together. I love this place more and more every day I'm here.
After leaving the park, I headed over to a local gallery that had advertised a show I was interested in seeing (beautiful color saturated abstract landscapes by Emma Barr) and when I arrived, I was happy to find that the place was not only a gallery but a coffee shop as well. After I'd had a quick look around, I ordered a cup of coffee and conversed happily with the barista Lauren and several other friendly folks in the shop. Lauren not only makes a mean cup of coffee and exudes charm, but she also curates the art exhibitions and develops classes and programs for the community. She mentioned that there was going to be a really fun doll-making workshop 30 minutes hence that would be taught be a local artist who was a ball of fire. I had one of those moments in my life that is the shining gold of existence - I had no plan, I had no commitments, I had nothing but possibility in front of me. I sat back down at the table to wait for the class and got ready to create. I spent the next three hours happily cutting and sewing with four young girls and two other women close to my age. It was heaven! The teacher, Claire, was completely as advertised and we got along swimmingly.
I can't show you a picture of what I made because it's a Valentine for Mark and as such is currently a secret, but I can show you pictures of the other gals and their results:
As I drove back to my cabin, the last bit of light was beginning to recede over the snowy landscape and I thought of all those brave mushers, reaching up to switch on their headlamps.
Go, Abbie and Christina, GO!!!