The Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile or 1600 kilometer sled dog race that runs between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In even numbered years the race starts in Fairbanks and finishes in Whitehorse and in odd numbered years it starts in Whitehorse and finishes in Fairbanks. This year, 1998, the Quest will begin in Whitehorse, again (to comemorate the 100 yr anniversary of the Gold Rush) on February 8.
Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon and has a population of approximately 23,000 people. Whitehorse sits on the banks of the Yukon River. When the race begins in early February the days are getting much longer and northern winter activities such as ice festivals and sled dog races are in full swing.
The Yukon Quest allows up to 50 teams to enter the race and has a $100,000 purse which is divided among the first 20 teams to finish the race. Two days before the start of the race a banquet is held where each musher is introduced and where the musher draws his/her starting number. At the end of the race is a Finish Banquet where the mushers are awarded their prize monies as well as several other awards such as the Mayor's Trophy, Sportsmanship Award, Rookie of the Year Award, etc.
The mushers usually begin their training season as soon as there is enough snow on the trails to run a sled (around mid-November), and some even start training earlier with four-wheelers. The interior of Alaska and Yukon abound in trails which are also used by snowmobiles, cross country skiers and horse back riders.
The very competitive mushers have anywhere from 25 to 150 dogs, but mushers with more modest dog yards of 15 to 20 dogs can also do well. Dave Monson, (1988 Yukon Quest winner) and his wife, Susan Butchere (three time Iditarod winner), have roughly 150 dogs. These mushers make raising and racing sled dogs their year round livelihood.
Dentists, builders, or trappers; the Yukon Quest attracts mushers from many different occupational areas. They often hire "dog handlers" to help train and take care of their kennels for the season, but often it is a family affair and the handler is a husband or wife.
From November to early February the mushers run their teams a total of 800 to 2000 miles, and then choose the best performers for their Quest team. A Quest team cannot exceed 14 dogs. It is very important to have at least 2, and possibly 3 or 4 lead dogs since these dogs lead the team and listen for commands from the musher.
At the start of the race, each team musher have at least 8 dogs, but no more than 14. There are 9 checkpoints and each musher must check in and have their dogs examined by a veterinarian at each one of these stops. Only at the checkpoints may the musher get fresh supplies and drop a dog. Sometimes a dog becomes injured or sick and may not be able to finish the race so they are cared for at the checkpoint and sent home. No more than 8 dogs may be dropped, otherwise the musher must drop out of the race. This makes excellent dog care an imperative for the musher.
The distance between checkpoints sometimes takes two or three days of mushing, so the sled is sometimes very heavily loaded with dog food, camping gear, extra clothing and food. The temperatures sometimes drop as low as -50C.
The dogs, of course, cannot run 1000 miles (1600km) and climb hills, mountains, and traverse rivers without stopping fairly frequently for rests. Strategy and routine are an important part of the race. They often like to run at night if the days are too warm. For instance, a musher might run for two hours, take a short break, run for two more hours then rest for four hours. During this four hour rest the musher might build a fire, cook, feed the dogs, check the dogs feet to make sure they are not hurt and get a couple hours sleep.
The exhausting pace become very tiring, so there is a mandatory 36 hour layover at Dawson City, Yukon. This is also the only checkpoint where a musher may receive help from a handler; at all other times he/she must do everything independently. Anywhere from 10 to 14 days after the start of the race the first musher will cross the finish line. The time it takes to complete the race depends mainly on the weather. Depending on the time of day or night that they finish, there will often be several hundred people to greet them. Often several more mushers finish within two or three hours, and most mushers have crossed the finish line within three days after the winner.