Yukon Quest: Alaska's colder, darker, lonelier long-distance mushing race

The 33rd Yukon Quest — Alaska's comparatively unknown 1,000-mile race — is underway, with the leaders nearly to Canada.

To be sure, the Iditarod gets most of the sled dog racing attention in Alaska. Mushers come from all over the world to participate in the Iditarod, and men and women quite unfamiliar with dogs put together kennels with the goal of racing in the Iditarod.

That's where the difference between Iditarod and the Yukon Quest competitors is most evident. Most Quest mushers have had dogs for years and then decide to race the Quest. Many of them go for the trip and the challenge. More than a few cringe at the thought of media attention. They're in one of Alaska's toughest races for themselves, and for the most part they're low-budget teams.

The Quest costs roughly half as much to run as the Iditarod and pays the top finishers about half as much too. And if someone is looking for team sponsors, the Quest is a tough sell. "Yukon who?" comes the query.

I was trail coordinator for the Quest for a couple of years. I remember talking to one of the competitors about 700 miles into the race. This guy was an Iditarod veteran and a Quest rookie. "How do you like the Yukon Quest? I asked him. "Too cold and too darn dark!" he replied. "And besides, it's really lonely out here!"

That's true. Last year's second place finisher, Allen Moore, traveled all of the way from Dawson to nearly Central — a distance of 350 miles without seeing another dog team. Lonely indeed!

Cold? Sure. On the Iditarod, the media takes notice when it hits minus-30. On the Yukon Quest, folks assume 40 below and then write about it if it doesn't reach that temperature.

There is something intimidating about very low temperatures when you're is alone. In 2015, a number of teams scratched from the Quest, citing the minus-40 and minus-50 temperatures as the reason. These same teams tackled the Iditarod and managed the same temperatures just fine. Cold feet love company?

This year, though, the weather is balmy on the Yukon River. The lead teams are dealing with 10 below to 20 above. The race is shaping up a bit differently too. Four teams are in the lead group, and they're mostly hanging together.

There's also a cohesive second group of teams. A half-dozen teams are 50 or 60 miles behind the leaders and are resting together. It will be interesting to see if this continues.

Defending champion Brent Sass has set the pace thus far. Brent has led but has not yet established himself as the clear frontrunner over the first third of the race.

Not long ago, the Quest trail was quite poor compared to the super snowmobile highway that is the path for most of the Iditarod. The original dog rules were quite different too. Quest teams started with a maximum of 12 dogs and could only drop three. The Iditarod long ago allowed 20 dogs in a team. Today both events have come closer together, with the Iditarod allowing 16 dogs and the Quest increasing its maximum to 14 and removing the dog-drop limit.

The chief difference is the number of checkpoints — the Quest has nine while the Iditarod has nearly three times that number.

Another major difference between the two races is the mandatory rest stop near the mid-point of Yukon Quest. The Iditarod mandatory 24-hour stop can be taken at any checkpoint of the musher's choosing.

Often the mid-point layover can be the game changer on the Quest. A team willing to gamble can make a long run into Dawson so as to have a significant lead when leaving there. A four-hour lead with a rested team is tough for any chaser to overcome.

For race fans, the Yukon Quest has significantly fewer competitors than the "other race" and the single rest stop makes it easier to watch and a bit less taxing to figure out who's really out front.

For all that, this season's Quest may play out much the same as the past couple — with the same guys up front.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Delta. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.