The Yukon has fascinated me. I’ve waited to write about the Yukon Quest race because I just keep reading more and more about it, losing myself down a rabbit hole of myths, legends and impossible-sounding stories which turn out to be true. This is a race like no other: one thousand miles in bitter sub-zero temperatures following the route of the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush route between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Just mushers, their teams of sled dogs and the bone-numbing cold and unimaginably vast spaces of the Great White North. On average it takes between 10-20 days to cover the route. Unlike other endurance races, there are only ten checkpoints along the way – some are more than 200 miles apart. The originators of the Quest decided to make it harder than other races, more ‘woodsman-like’ as they wanted it to be a race where ‘survival would be as important as speed.’
I was taking photographs at the start of the race. I lay in snow at the side of the track, I had my Canada Goose parka on; gloves, scarf, snow pants, I was well-wrapped up, but some 45 minutes lying in that snow, slowly feeling the cold bite at my face and fingers, made me look at these mushers with awe. To be that cold; to race through the day and night, frost forming on beards, eyelashes icing up, with no hope of a warm bed at the end – took courage that I couldn’t imagine possessing.
There’s a romance about the race for sure; I shared a lift into town with a couple from Vienna who’d come to Whitehorse to see the lights and had been bitten by the bug, “It’s highly non-technical,” enthused Peter Pollak, “It emphasises self-reliance, there’s no one there to pick you up, you have to take care of your dogs first and then yourself.” His wife, Mary, agreed, “We didn’t know about it before we came, but there’s something addictive about it. We’ve already planned to come back next year to follow the trail.”
I’ll come clean – before I came, I couldn’t imagine being interested in this at all. This has “NOT MY THING” all over it in neon letters, but I got excited by the atmosphere and found myself pulled in; I talked to the handlers, petted the excited dogs and chatted to a few of the mushers, like Christina Traverse who saw the Quest on TV and thought, “I want to do that one day”. This was to be her first Quest, but I saw on the site, that she lasted just 41hrs, 44mins before being retired from the race and hospitalised. I remember the trepidation – and excitement – in her eyes and I know she’ll be back again another year.
Brent Sass, a Quest regular, running his seventh race, came in third. He first got started after he saw a dog team, “I wanted to do that. One dog turned into five, turned into 10, then 25. The first time I did the Quest was scary; all the uncertainties of the trail and the obstacles ahead, you don’t know what you’re going to run into, but I enjoy it all, I thrive when the hard weather comes.”
The love of the mushers for their dogs was clear; the last musher to run spent time kissing, hugging and talking to each of his dogs, who were all excitedly pulling and jumping, desperate to get racing before stepping behind his sled and heading off into a thousand miles of snow and ice.
I looked at the stats and the times of all the mushers from this year’s race, there’s a section on the site where you can leave messages for them – there must have been thousands. School children who were studying the race who saw the mushers as their heroes (I found this amazing Yukon Quest maths sheet!), fellow dog-lovers, even relatives and friends leaving messages of love and support that had me welling up. I thought about how they must feel – anxious for their loved one but bursting with pride – imagining them far out in the snow with nothing but the sound of bootie-clad paws racing across the ice for company, nothing but 250lbs of packed equipment and provisions on their sled between checkpoints to keep them going. I saw wisps of straw fall as I lay in the snow, I imagined the dogs curled up on it, resting, and the musher, after massaging their feet, changing their booties, feeding and watering them, eventually curling up too, grabbing a few short hours sleep before pushing on again to that finish line.
I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism – as ever – my views are 100% my own.