Yukon Quest, the Toughest Race on Earth
In 2009 I had the honor of handling for Wayne and Scarlett Hall, Bush Alaska Expeditions, on the Yukon Quest. They are my friends that I went to visit this summer out of Eagle. You can read about that trip here: A Fowl Adventure. I never wrote the full trip report as I normally like to do when returning from an adventure because frankly I was exhausted and just wanted to spend time being a normal mom person for a while. The Quest that year started in Whitehorse on February 14, yes Valentine’s Day. In January we had a cold snap of 3 weeks solid where the high never got above -40F. So I was pretty sure we were going to have a cold race too.
A handler’s job is to drive the dog truck, be waiting for the musher when s/he comes into each checkpoint, be encouraging, clean up after your team leaves, raking and bagging straw and poop, and caring for any dogs that are dropped due to injury or illness. There are a lot of other details but these are the main responsibilities of a dog handler on the Yukon Quest Trail.
Yukon Quest Race History The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race gets its name from the “highway of the north,” the Yukon River, and historic winter land routes followed by prospectors, adventurers and later mail and supply carriers traveling between the gold fields of the Klondike and those in the Alaska interior.THE ORIGINS OF THE YUKON QUESTIn 1983, four men, all mushers, sat at a table in the Bull’s Eye Saloon, in Fairbanks, Alaska. The conversation turned to a discussion about a new sled dog race and “what-ifs.” What if the race followed a historical trail? What if it were an international sled dog race? What if the race went a little longer? What if it even went up the Yukon River?As early as 1976, a Fairbanks to Whitehorse sled dog race had been talked of. But it wasn’t until this conversation between Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and Willie Libb that the Yukon Quest became more than an idea. The mushers decided to name the race the “Yukon Quest” to commemorate the Yukon River, the old highway of the north. The trail would trace the routes that the prospectors followed to reach the Klondike during the 1898 Gold Rush and from there to the Alaskan interior for subsequent gold rushes in the early years of the 1900’s.The first Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race tested both race logistics and the talents of all involved. Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks that February day in 1984. Over the next 16 days, 20 teams made it to Whitehorse, with six teams forced to drop out along the way. Sonny Lindner became the first Yukon Quest champion, completing the race in just over 12 days.
Trail info quoted from Mushers’ Guide to the Yukon Quest Trail. Which is a really interesting read.
Monday, February 9th, we started our trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. We had to go early because we all had meetings to attend before hand. Wayne had the mandatory mushers meeting, Jan and me to the mandatory press meeting, me, Amanda, and Robert to the mandatory handlers meeting, and the Start-Draw Banquet at the Yukon Convention Cntr. We stayed at Sebastian Schnuelle’s house. He’s also a very famous musher. He won the Quest this year so that was very exciting.
I think if you click on the map, you can better see where we were.
Beaver Creek. We dropped the dogs, fed them, fed us, then got back on the road. February 9. Left to right, Amanda, Robert, Wayne and Scarlett’s friend that is a border patrol agent there at the Canadian border, Wayne, Jan. This is the little road house after the border crossing.
Ketchup potato chips. They were uh, yuck.
This is me and Hombre. He is my favorite out of all Wayne and Scarlett’s dogs. He was also one of the, if not THE biggest dog in the whole race, and he finished the whole thing. The truck has “outriggers” that come out so we can drop the dogs. We got to Sebastian’s about 2 in the morning. His long driveway wasn’t plowed and there had been a lot of snow. We were afraid that if we tried to get in, we would get stuck. The dog truck is an F550 with a huge dog box. So we back tracked to a roadside pullout to drop the dogs and then sleep the rest of the night. The following morning, Wayne and Scarlett hiked into his house and he came out and drove us in (about 1/4-1/2 mile). We almost DID get stuck.
This is the cabin at Sebastian’s we stayed in. Wayne and Scarlet slept up at his house and the rest of us stayed here. It is the shower house. Sebastian lives about 40 miles outside of Whitehorse. This is the beautiful drive into town. The dog truck in front of a big mural.
Another big mural. There are many of these in downtown Whitehorse.
Meet the Musher night at the Yukon Convention Center. This is where fans can come and meet their favorite musher, get autographs signed, and visit with old friends.
At the start/draw banquet, Wayne drew bib #28.
This is my foot steaming in our cabin. We had a wood stove but it was seriously cold. It was funny at the time.
Jan and I had our bedrolls on the floor right in front of the woodstove. My job was to keep it stocked all night. We still froze our asses off being on the floor. Robert and Amanda, up in the loft was toasty warm.
We even resorted to sleep aids in the form of some Baileys.
Coffee set up for the morning. That’s the shower to the back and right of the table.
This is the “cook shack”. There is a family that lives here and cooks and feeds Sebastian and all his handlers. They are nice and have fun kids.
Getting the dogs out to stretch their legs.
February 14th, Race Day!
Here is the gangline stretched out ready to put the dogs on.
I think we were the first people there that morning. We found our assigned space and started getting ready. Very shortly, the lot was full of dogs, mushers, handlers, fans, media, and race officials. It’s difficult to describe the excited chaos of a race day dog lot. Dogs are barking, people are visiting with new and old friends they may only see once a year or even less, fans are taking pictures and trying to meet their favorite mushers (who are most often too busy to chat), vets are doing one last check on the dogs, mushers are obsessing, ensuring none of their last-minute details have been overlooked, and handlers are grinning!
Last minute vet check and checking for micro chips. All dogs must be microchipped.
Hombre looking over his team. Booties out and ready to be put on.
Waiting for our turn.
“At the start, you will help to make sure your musher gets out of the gate cleanly — and with all his supplies, etc. packed well. The start is very exciting and working behind the line is especially exciting. At this point, the musher will bark orders and you just obey. The musher will have a particular plan for harnessing and booting their team, and you need to be able to respond quickly to the musher’s directions. You can take pictures before you hook up the team, but once you hear the order to put dogs on the line, give the camera to someone else. You are about to become a human anchor.
When 14 Quest dogs are all on the line, it takes at least 14 people to hold the team and sled back – and that’s with two or three people on the runners and an extra person on top of the loaded sled! Those dogs will be eager to get going, and they are amazingly powerful. The start of the race, and the first 100 miles, represent the highest risk for a team. With the dogs so full of energy, amidst the excitement of the start, they are at greater risk of injury. It will be your job to help calm them down until they are released from the chute.”
From “Handling in the Yukon Quest” by Anne Taylor
(I don’t remember Wayne ever “barking” orders. He can get serious and very down to business, but still remains friendly.)
Walking to the start line. Lots of people are needed to hold the dogs back. Normally the sled is also tied off to a snowmachine. Though these dogs are so well-trained, they are pure power and excited to go!
Me behind the start line.
29 teams start their grand adventure!
Wayne started with 14 beautiful Alaskan Huskies.
Since it was Valentine’s Day, Wayne had a special package of a heart of chocolates which he threw to Scarlett as his team took off. Talk about a romantic!
Scarlett and Jan.
Braeburn Lodge is famous for its humongous cinnamon rolls. Handlers hang out inside waiting for their mushers to come in, checking in on their laptops, and visiting. As a handler, it is common to make friends of other handlers. After all, you are all sleep deprived, and on an excellent adventure together. It was about -40 when Wayne came in. Robert, Amanda, and I took half an hour shifts standing with our team. We would just get thawed out before it was our turn to go out again. But there was a wonderful show of northern lights to entertain us. This early in the race, most of the teams are still bunched up so the dog lot is crowded. We make sure the dogs don’t get into fights or get distracted by some dog going into heat.
Handlers can only stand at the head of the team or behind the sled. We are not able to touch the dogs or the sled unless a fight breaks out (not real common). When the musher comes in, he feeds his dogs, puts down straw, checks them out and takes care of anything that has to do with the dogs and his supplies. After all, this race is about the relationship between the musher and his dogs. Then he is able to go inside and eat, dry his gear, sleep, get trail and weather reports, or whatever.
“Once the race starts, your best resource will be other handlers, as you will all spend a lot of time hurrying up and waiting-waiting-waiting. You will need to rest whenever you get a chance – twenty minutes power napping is worth far more than 3 hours of pacing. Likewise, jump in the shower when you get the chance. The one time you skip the chance to sleep or shower, will turn out to be the one time when you end up unable to do either for 48 hours. You don’t need to “spot” for your team all the time. After a while, you will recognize the alarm, “TEAM”, even if you cannot hear the words. You will sense pending arrivals by the way people in the next room start to shuffle around and reach for parkas. And, trust me on this, if you have been waiting several hours longer than expected for your musher, and finally decide to go to the bathroom (on a forty-below night, with all the clothing that entails), you will hear the haunting cry of “TEAM” just as you get your pants down… and this time it will indeed be your team.”
From “Handling in the Yukon Quest” by Anne Taylor
Braeburn to Carmacks: (Approx. 70 trail miles)
Carmacks to Pelly Crossing: (Approx. 75-80 trail miles)
Jan, checking her camera.
Scarlett checking her email, the weather, trail reports or something.
Pelly Crossing checkpoint is at their community center.
Pelly Crossing to Dawson City: (Approx. 205-210 miles)
The Halfway Point!
Mushers have a mandatory 36 hour layover in Dawson City. This is the only time in the race that handlers can have access to the dogs. Normally the dogs get pampered at their own camp while the musher gets pampered at a hotel in town.
Here is a little interesting article by the Quest about what happens in Dawson.
Crossing the Yukon River ice bridge. The campground where the dogs are set up is across the river from town.
Since there is only one bridge that crosses the mighty Yukon River, the bridge on the Dalton Hwy in Alaska, there is a ferry that crosses here in the summer with an ice road that crosses in the winter. This road continues on to the Top of the World Hwy that goes into Eagle, AK from the east. It’s closed in the winter.
Our spot. We were only allowed to drive the truck in for unloading our gear then loading back up. So everyone had to park out by the road and hike in. It was a long walk. I’m terrible at distances so don’t know how long it was.
Arctic oven tent.
The dogs can not be in an enclosed space but can have a two sided and roofed cover for their 36 hour rest. Scarlett and I made a doggie palace. We dug down in the snow for a walkway for two reasons. One, it’s easier to work on the dogs if you don’t have to get all the way down on the ground bundled up in all your winter gear. But the more important reason is to raise the dogs up where they will get more warmth.
After we made camp, we headed back into town to wait for Wayne to get in.
Me, Jan, Amanda, Robert, Scarlett.
CFYT Dawson City Community Radio. Listen live here. I expected to hear Chris Stevens playing some old jazz. I love listening to these little local radio stations. You can really get a feel for the community’s’ personalities.
Jan takes a break during a busy day.
Handlers waiting at the checkpoint, a place for gathering, and free wi fi.
Some adventurous soul parachuting in.
Northwest Territories Visitor Center
And the mushers start to arrive!
After the busy day, Robert, Amanda, and I hiked back to the tent. Robert looking at some trail maps.
The stove, while tiny and needing to be stoked often, kept us warm in the tent.
I was going to stay out here but Jan and I ended up being invited to stay at one of the race judge’s house in town. That was a sweet score! Showers on the Quest trail are pretty rare. I felt pretty bad about leaving Robert and Amanda to do all the work that night but they are young and probably enjoy some time alone with each other.
Wayne was 18th into Dawson. That’s a pretty good gain from the 28th position. He came in on Feb. 19th at 3:15 AM.
Amanda fixing breakfast for the dogs. This is dried fish in hot water.
All fed and snuggled down.
While we can’t enclose the dogs, we can provide wind shields.
This camp belongs to another musher. You can see how low their enclosure is. I’m sure it helps keep the warmth from the dogs’ body heat in but it has to be hell on tired backs.
Handlers hanging out at dog camp while their team rests.
Colleen Robertia just coming in.
The dog trucks parked alongside the road before the turn into the camp area. You can see down at the bottom of the hill is the river and across that, town. Dog trucks were not allowed into camp after mushers started to come in to ensure the safety of the dogs.
There is such a variety of dog trucks from luxurious to shoe string budget.
Sleds often get broken on this race. Mushers can replace their sled if they have an extra.
Our team is in and safely snuggled down for the night. Time for some fun and relaxation. February 19th after getting the dogs settle for the night.
Established in 1973, the Sourtoe Cocktail has become a Dawson City tradition. The original rules were that the toe must be placed in a beer glass full of champagne, and that the toe must touch the drinker’s lips during the consumption of the alcohol before he or she can claim to be a true Sourtoer. The rules have changed in the past twenty-seven years. The Sourtoe can be had with any drink now (even ones that aren’t alcoholic), but one rule remains the same. The drinker’s lips must touch the toe.
The guy on the left is the one “performing the ceremony” and reading the rules.
“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow– But the lips have gotta touch the toe.”
The Sourtoes are actual human toes that have been dehydrated and preserved in salt. Swallowing one is not suggested (though it has happened, more than once!)
That’s the toe in his mouth like a cigar. Yes I did it too but only have the certificate to prove it, not a picture. Boo hoo. What we wont do to gross out our friends, I don’t know.
Wayne sorting out gear and dog food from his drop bags. Trying to figure out what to pack next.
Kibble, chicken, sheep, horse, fish, fat balls (the pale yellow squares). protein and fat are what these dogs need. Dogs don’t convert carbs well into energy, they need fat!
Future fish soup. Yes, I saw an eyeball floating around in there. The dogs loved it like it was gourmet though.
Robert chopping up the frozen blocks of fish into smaller pieces to make soup for the dogs.
Amanda scooping the fish soup into bowls. Wayne is adding some supplements.
Jan giving doggie massages. Ohhh they were loving that!
Getting ready to go back out again.
Top of the World Hwy border crossing back into the US.
We took a little trip up on the Top of the World Highway. This is overlooking Dawson City. This is the road that short cuts over the mountains to Eagle, AK. It is closed in the winter. It only takes a few mile to see where it got its name.
This is what happens when you build on permafrost. The heat from the building thaws the ground underneath. Once thawed, it moves.
Robert Service Cabin
The Cremation of Sam McGee
by Robert Service
There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales That would make your blood run cold; The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, But the queerest they ever did see Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee. Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows. He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d “sooner live in hell”. On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail. If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see; It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee. And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow, And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe, He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess; And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.” Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan: “It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone. Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains; So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.” A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail; And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale. He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee; And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee. There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven, With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given; It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains, But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.” Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load. In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring, Howled out their woes to the homeless snows — O God! how I loathed the thing. And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow; And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low; The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in; And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin. Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay; It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May”. And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum; Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.” Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire; Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher; The flames just soared, and the furnace roared — such a blaze you seldom see; And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee. Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so; And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow. It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why; And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky. I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near; I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside. I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; . . . then the door I opened wide. And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door. It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm — Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.” There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales That would make your blood run cold; The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, But the queerest they ever did see Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.
Back on the road. We spent the night driving. Well, Jan drove, I kept her entertained and awake. Robert and Amanda snored away in the back but they had stayed up to get Wayne and the dogs into camp the night before. We were exhausted and the road was drifting in with snow, but we had many miles to go in order to get to the next check point before Wayne.
Dawson City to Eagle: (Approx. 150 trail miles)
This is the loop we had to make. You can click on it to see it better or right click and open in a new window so you don’t have to reload this whole page. The arrow points to the Top of the World Highway out of Dawson which is closed in the winter. So we had to drive all the way back down the loop and back up to Circle which is the north end of the line. The mushers cut across country here and go north west, with a checkpoint in Eagle while we follow the road and go south east. Scarlett is the Checkpoint Manager in Eagle so had left us to be flown home to Eagle to get ready for the teams to come in there. The regular handlers don’t go there obviously, but they have checkpoint volunteers to take care of any dogs that need to be dropped and feed the mushers. Out of the several weeks I was gone, I’ll say this was the most difficult part of the trip, starting a long drive when already sleep deprived, through bad weather and bad mountain roads, and only stopping in at home on our way through Fairbanks for a quick shower and to kiss your kids before hitting the road again was hard. By this time we are all feeling that weariness deep in our bones.
But the rewards of the scenery are worth it all.
The Wrangells are some of the most magical mountains in this state.
Some checkpoints have fires for the handlers to hang out at and get warm. You end up becoming friends with many of them. I hope to see these guys again next year if they are handling, as they go through Mile 101 checkpoint.
“Handlers are generous to one another with advice and support, so don’t be afraid to ask. Every year, there are innumerable instances of one crew helping another – in everything from auto mechanics to Internet connections to dog food to specialized care of an injury. While the race itself is competitive, the actual care of dogs is not. Everyone is committed to providing good dog care, regardless of what team a dog may be on.”
From “Handling in the Yukon Quest” by Anne Taylor
I’m not sure what happened to my pictures from Circle and Central Checkpoints so I’ll just use some from the previous year when we handled for Eric Rogers.
Eagle to Circle City: (Approx. 160 trail miles)
Population: 94 Circle is located at the end of the Steese Highway on the Yukon River, 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and 161 miles from Fairbanks. Originally named Circle City, because the early miners thought it was located on the Arctic Circle, the town began as a supply point to the new gold diggings on Birch Creek in 1893, and grew as a hub for various gold camps in the Interior. Circle City was the largest gold mining town on the Yukon River, before the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 created Dawson City, YT.Today, Circle serves a small local population and visitors coming in by highway or by river. There’s a lot of summer river traffic here: many Yukon River travelers put in and take out at Circle.Gas, groceries, snacks and sundries are available at the H.C. Company Store, which also has the only gas in town. Free camping available at unmaintained parking area alongside the Yukon River.Attractions: The old Pioneer Cemetery, with its markers dating back to the 1800s, is an interesting spot to visit. Dip your toes in the Yukon, Alaska’s largest river. The 2,000-mile river heads in Canada and flows west into Norton Sound on the Bering Sea. Excerpt from The Milepost
The checkpoint was in the fire house.
Dogs at rest.
A village store has everything. Well, has a lot of things.
This is an old storage tank that had been converted into living quarters at one time. There were two of them. They weren’t being lived in. I imagine they were from many years ago. It reminded me of the movie Cannery Row.
Showers, food, sleeping space, and internet are all available at the school.
Circle City to Central: (75 trail miles)
This is the leader board on the wall, showing the musher’s standings.
This thermometer was stuck at -20. It was definitely colder then that!
Mile 101 Dogdrop!
This is where I worked last year for the Quest. It is now an official checkpoint. I love these little cabins tucked into the mountains. As a handler though, they are difficult because there is no room to hang out inside. But we were fed, bacon, eggs, and halibut! It’s the traditional food of Mile 101. Food is donated by one of my favorite local places to hang out, Ivory Jack’s. I plan on working there again this year.
The difference between a dog drop and a checkpoint is that at a checkpoint, the mushers have their drop bags to resupply from. These are bags that are prepared by the mushers ahead of time and shipped to each checkpoint. They contain dog food, people food, batteries, snacks, extra gear and sled repair items, etc. A dog drop is just a place that a musher can leave any dogs that are no longer able or wanting to race and they will be cared for by the musher’s handlers and brought along by them to the finish line. This is where a lot of mushers scratch due to the infamous Eagle Summit!
This is overflow, flowing over the road. They try to keep it off but still have to plow it off the road occasionally. It’s just a solid wall of ice creeping out to cover the road.
Central to Two Rivers: (approx. 115 trail miles)
Twin Bears Camp Checkpoint
Wayne came in gaining 3 more places, in position #15.
Wayne dropped a dog here. She was a bit dehydrated and was not enjoying herself any more. Since this was a young dog, it was very important to stop once it was no longer fun for her. That way she is always excited to run again. She got an iv for some fluids.
The vet, fixing her up.
Wayne and Scarlett
Poor Wayne, I could tell he was just exhausted by this point. Of course, they all were by this point. It really makes you just want to do something for them, though there is not much to be done. That is why it is called a race, and not a camping trip.
The dogs resting with some shelter from the wind.
Harnessing up and putting booties on after their rest. One more leg of the journey to go!
Two Rivers to Fairbanks (approx 44 trail miles)
Back in Fairbanks, Scarlett had rejoined us for the finish. We had a fair idea of when he would be coming in so we hung out on the Chena River (finish point) for a couple of hours waiting with the few race officials there to check in mushers as they crossed the finish line. The problem with finishing in the middle of the night, there are very few fans that are that dedicated. It was about 15-20 below zero, farenheit with a bit of wind which made it cold. Standing on the river, any river, always adds to the cold though.
Wayne came in 15th place from a total of 29 mushers who started, on February 27 at 2:33 am. His total time was 12 days, 15 hours, and 9 minutes. He finished with 10 dogs, dropping 4 on the trail at various points.
Out of 29 that started, 11 scratched during the race leaving only 18 finishers. That is just how tough the race it. It’s not called the Toughest Race on Earth for nothing!
The race official makes sure he has all his required gear; sleeping bag, ax, snow shoes, booties, vet book, cooker, etc.
The finish banquet is always a fun time. Listening to the mushers speak, telling tales, visiting with friends while NOT dressed up as the Michelin Man, all a good time.
From left to right:
Amanda, Robert, Wayne, Scarlett, me, Jan.
What an excellent adventure!
Thanks for letting me be a part of it.
I really appreciate comments and would love to answer any questions you may have. This is just a small portion of what handling in such a race entails but I had to stop somewhere. I’ve spent the last month or so working on this, adding links, making clarifications, etc. I hope you enjoy it.