Traffic is light on the Denali Highway for the opening of moose season. Caribou season is closed for the most part. There is one oddball permit hunt and the community hunt going on, but the popular caribou hunts are now closed.
The moose-hunting traffic seems similar to that of a decade ago. The moose population along the highway is weak. But what is bad for some always has an upside, if only for a select few.
In the case of the Denali, there are a few caribou permit holders who will have little competition. There is also another tiny group that will benefit, one that few think of. Dog mushers.
There are Iditarod and Yukon Quest teams that love to train on the Denali Highway. Gravel, early snow and slow traffic, combined with long runs and easy access, make it a premier training area.
COVID-19 ruled the world last winter. Dog races modified protocols to fit the fearful atmosphere. The virus is still with us in 2021, but we are learning to live with it in our own ways. Race organizations are still using caution, but not at the expense of competition.
The Yukon Quest seems to have discovered life without the Canadians. The 2021 Quest was actually the Summit Quest 300, starting in Two Rivers and ending in Central.
Next year there will be two races — a 550-mile Alaska race that starts Feb. 5 in Tok and a 300-mile Yukon race that starts Feb. 19 in Whitehorse. There will also be two shorter races, one on each side of the border — a 200-miler in Alaska and 100-miler in Yukon.
The Alaska race will parallel the Alaska Highway from Tok to Tetlin Junction, then turn up the Taylor Highway. The next 160 miles will follow the Taylor — which is not maintained during winter months — traveling through the little town of Chicken before rejoining the traditional Quest trail at Eagle.
The trail from Eagle to Fairbanks will be the same as it has always been: Cold and challenging. Birch Creek, between Circle City and Central, is one of the coldest places in Alaska. Minus 70 temperatures are not necessarily rare events in that country. Minus 30 is a balmy winter afternoon.
A new format will benefit dogs and mushers alike — and it will make training on the Denali Highway more valuable than ever.
Mushers will have three mandatory six-hour rests scattered over the last 400 miles. Also, they will need to take 36 hours of floating rest at checkpoints. Training dogs for that style of race fits well with the 135 miles of the Denali Highway.
Despite the dog- and musher-friendly format, few teams have signed up for the race. It seems a perfect pre-Iditarod run. The purse will be a little weak for a 550-mile race, but that doesn’t usually deter dog mushers. Mushers almost never make any money racing dogs.
Possibly, the hesitancy comes from looking at the race route. It will be cold. It will be dark. The miners and trappers who opened up the Yukon and the Denali country were a tougher breed. Snowmobiles with heated grips, chemical foot warmers, emergency spot trackers and the GPS have effectively erased those type of folks.
Motor homes have replaced tents, the 4-wheelers have taken out the walkers. Chip seal is replacing the gravel of the Denali.
All of these things are, without argument, improvements, though it begs a question. How many “improvements” can we stand and still have an outdoorsman?
Several decades back, when I was young with a woods wanderlust, I used to go into the mountains with a light pack of pilot bread, peanut butter, oatmeal and some fishing line. My comfort items were good rain gear and a light sleeping bag. I kept my total pack weight under 20 pounds.
I would stay out for three weeks at a time. My diet contained a lot of golden-fin trout and ground squirrels. Since then, time, age and “improvements” have spoiled me.
If you have an ATV to train dogs, a GPS to check distance and location, a sit-down sled to rest your weary behind and Advil to ease your aching back, life on the trail is easy.
There is no denying these new gadgets are beneficial. Yet they diminish not just an event or activity, they also somehow diminish us. Lose a generation of knowledge and ability, and as a society we will never get it back.
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.