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Alaska News

Yukon Quest organizers plan two races in 2021 amid border and financial uncertainty

Rookie musher Olivia Webster leaves Fairbanks during the start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on February 1, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

Organizers of the annual Yukon Quest sled dog race are planning separate 2021 races in Alaska and the Yukon.

The roughly 1,000-mile race normally runs between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, switching directions each year. The decision to split the race in two was prompted by financial woes and uncertainty about the status of the Canada-U.S. border during the COVID-19 pandemic, directors said in an online statement.

The Alaska race will be shorter in 2021, as organizers said they expect less financial support from sponsors also impacted by the pandemic.

“We’re working hard to find solutions for our financial situation,” said Dave Dalton, president of the Quest’s Alaska board. “We’ve weighed what we can feasibly commit to for the 2021 race season and have determined that it makes the most sense to scale back this year and focus our efforts and resources on a shorter race in Alaska.”

Director of the Alaska Quest’s board, Doug Grilliot, said the board has seen a lot of support from sponsors and others in the community during the last few days and he’s optimistic that the organization can overcome the financial uncertainty. It will also save money for the organization to split up the race next year, he said.

Organizers both from the Yukon and Alaska sides felt that splitting up the race was the responsible decision and allows them to still hold a modified race instead of canceling altogether, Grilliot said.

“It takes an awful lot of logistics to put this on — a lot of border crossings, a lot of people and there are a lot of measures in place, obviously.” he said. “One of our fears is if in August things get loosened up a little bit, which would be great for travel, but then if they have a big spike in December and shut us down, then we’re really left with nothing.”

Organizers are still determining the routes and how long the races will be, but Grilliot said he feels confident that each race should be able to find viable trails around 300 to 500 miles long. The quest stages a shorter 300-mile race each year at the race starting location. The YQ300 is a qualifying race for the larger version and the Iditarod.

Grilliot said he hopes the community sees the two shorter races as an opportunity to try something new and have fun. The 1,000 mile route will continue again in 2022.

Musher sign-up has been postponed until September so racers will have a better idea of how rigorous the race will be. Grilliot said organizers plan to talk with communities along the race trail to make sure they feel comfortable with teams passing through or stopping during the pandemic.

Last year’s race began Feb. 1 with 15 teams competing — a record low number of participants. Musher Brent Sass won when he arrived in Whitehorse on Feb. 11. The Yukon Quest has taken place annually since 1984 and is the longest dog sled race in North America, tied with the Iditarod.

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