BY: CAROLINE ROLF
The sun rises on a clear, -40° morning as competitors place their callused hands on the back of their sled, perching, dogs waiting to run. The only sounds across the ice are sharp breaths and paws crunching the snow beneath them. It has all come down to the next 10 days in which mushers will navigate their way along the top of the world through jagged ice, over steep mountains and between sparse pines – for the most part in complete darkness and isolation. Crowds will gather to welcome the packs of powerful dogs that will pull the racers across the finish line. But to make it to the end is no easy feat. Sunlight touches the racers for about seven hours a day, which can cause hallucinations after one too many nighttime runs. This expedition is an overwhelming physical, mental and emotional test, it’s no wonder this is considered the toughest sled dog race in the world.
The Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race takes places between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska every year. This trek is considered a much more grueling test of endurance than the better known, Iditarod. This grittier quest pushes limits of skill and resilience across the harsh terrain of frozen ground and slopes, partially following the trail of gold rush prospectors. Thousands of spectators from around the world gather at the start line in February, the coldest month of the year, to celebrate the brave few that are about to embark on a 1000-mile journey that most of us would never consider trying. Then again, mushers aren’t like most of us.
Hugh Neff, champion of the 2016 Yukon Quest said, “There’s so much more to this race than just winning, it’s not about some trophy.”
The mushers and their 14-dog team carry necessary food, equipment and supplies over the entire course, receiving help only at the 11 checkpoints placed along the trails. These checkpoints are hosted by small communities and can be anywhere from 100 to more than 300 km apart. The audience can follow the race here amongst the media waiting for the next racer to arrive, in hopes of getting on quote on the demanding hellscape. These breaks are crucial for competitors to get a brief moment to replace gear (at the expense of a time penalty) and a little shuteye before dashing back into the snowy frontier. Most importantly, checkpoints allow for the huskies to get the care they need from special veterinarians. These small town checkpoints are the true soul of the daring Quest. It is here that racers share stories and warm food, visit with community members and volunteers and make friends during the mentally challenging journey of loneliness.
The only thing that is promised along the frigid trails is change. Come the sunrise of each day, mushers can expect to face a new obstacle during the Yukon Quest. This includes threatening blizzards and melting ice that demands teams take alternative, and sometimes more challenging routes. There is no secret or set of guidelines to winning – or even finishing the 1000-mile international race. Only the most determined dog sled teams sign up more than once, addicted to the extreme expedition that can only be experienced in one of the darkest regions in the world.