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Outdoors/Adventure

Snow is on the ground. But what about the sled dog races that traditionally accompany it?

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: October 31, 2020
  • Published October 31, 2020

Michelle Phillips begins the descent toward the Mile 101 checkpoint from Eagle Summit during the 2019 Yukon Quest. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Snow is on the ground in Interior Alaska, and thoughts turn to snowmobiles. And dogs. Sled dogs, that is.

Sporting events all around the country are breaking new ground in how to deal with COVID-19 and somehow still provide entertainment for sports fans.

Race purses are down in almost all of the major Alaska sled dog races. The Iditarod reduced its purse and significantly reduced entry fees. The Kuskokwim 300 seems to be holding its ground with prize money but has added a number of COVID-19 requirements, such as mandatory testing. The Yukon Quest has almost disappeared due to management difficulties combined with COVID-19 issues on both sides of the border.

The Yukon Quest has a unique set of problems few other events have. The race trail crosses the international border between Alaska and Canada, and the Canadians want nothing to do with a bunch of potentially toxic American dog mushers traversing the Yukon. The race travels through remote Yukon villages that have little access to health care, so you can’t blame them.

Discussions with the joint Yukon Quest boards in May and June focused on having two races — one on the Canada side of the border and another on the Alaska side. The Canada side of things was relatively solvent financially. The Alaska side was struggling.

The race had been funded at close to normal levels in recent years and few knew, other than some limited insiders, it was running on borrowed cash. That cash became due in the spring of 2020, and there were serious discussions as to whether the Quest might fold permanently.

Fundraisers helped reduce the debt load and it was decided in September the race would continue on the Alaska side.

Meanwhile, the Canadians decided pandemic concerns outweighed the desire to hold a sled dog race, and their board canceled their side of the event. Alaskans, led by a small group of determined volunteers, pushed forward.

A shortened version of the Yukon Quest, christened the Summit Quest 300, will take place in mid-February. It will start in Fairbanks and go over the two toughest mountain sections in dog racing.

Rosebud Summit, less than 100 miles from Fairbanks, is steep enough to challenge snowmachines. It is also notorious for wind and fog on the top section of the summit. Musher Jason Campeau once was knocked unconscious in a crash on the Rosebud section.

The trail wanders up and down above timberline for several miles before dropping back into black spruce thickets on its way to the lonesome outpost at Mile 101 on the Steese Highway. Musher William Kleeden broke his leg will traveling on the always-present 101 overflows.

Eagle Summit greets mushers a short 5 miles out of 101. Eagle Summit is one of the steepest downhill race rides for mushers. Rare is the team that remains right-side up on the downhill plunge, and many teams have been pinned for hours, even days, by gale-force winds on Eagle Summit slopes.

The Quest trail continues through Central, the coldest country in Alaska, on its way to Circle City on the Yukon River.

Don’t ask me why mushers do this, but 20-odd mushers have signed up for this 300-mile race. They will do it for the prospect of little or no purse, because the Quest is still paying bills from past races and will have little compensation for competitors.

Money is not the draw for most mushers. It is the lonesome trail that keeps bringing them back, time after time. It is the chance to test their training and dogs against others of the same ilk.

I believe the Yukon Quest will claw its way back from its current financial pit. It will take determined support from volunteers who believe in this event, and from sponsors who recognize the perseverance and toughness of this event and wish to tie those attributes to their products.

The folks of Fairbanks and surrounding communities who see the Quest as part of their heritage will also contribute to save this event — and enable it to flourish.

Above all, it will take the efforts of dedicated mushers who see this race in a larger picture. This is an event not just for the city of Fairbanks, but something to present to the world. It is more than competition between dog teams. It is about man and his most beloved companions challenging the unknown North of legend at its toughest.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.

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