May is springtime. It seems a rather strange time to be writing about a 1,000-mile sled dog race. However, the Yukon Quest — the other long dog race that is not the Iditarod, is in the news. Albeit, it is not in the mainstream news. The Quest has been deathly sick for the past few years. Some might say financial mismanagement was the cause, but that is far from the truth. Mismanagement has nothing to do with the woes of the Quest, but rather the changing of the musher base that long-distance sled dog racing must have.
I was the Yukon Quest trail coordinator in 2009. The handwriting was being written on the wall that many years ago. As the trail coordinator, I asked for guys who could live and work in conditions and temperatures to minus 50 … alone. Two guys showed up: Bruno Bauris and Mike Rietz. Mike took over the trail duties in 2011 and he is still at it. The problem is this: There are not many dog drivers in the sport these days who can deal with, or want to deal with, the extreme temperatures and long lonesome runs that the Yukon Quest requires.
The Quest was originally designed for the small kennel. The idea was to hold a race that was an alternative to the Iditarod that was very challenging, not expensive and emphasized dog care. The Yukon Quest met that criteria. The original Quest had a 12-dog limit and teams were only allowed to drop three dogs, total, over the entire course. Sonny Lindner won the inaugural with a nine-dog team. From the start to the finish. My first Quest team had every dog I owned in an eight-dog team. We could do that in the 1980s and still compete.
Times have changed. Mushers have changed. There are no longer teams from Bush Alaska coming to town to race the Quest. Heck — there are few teams left in the villages at all. The perception is that one must have 50 dogs to compete in a long-distance race. The family with a recreational kennel has a little chance of success against a “professional” team that keeps a hundred dogs and can afford to feed absolute top-notch nutrition to them all. And, similar to top-echelon horse racing, there are performance-enhancing drugs available.
These are some of the factors that cause small kennels to hesitate running across the coldest, loneliest part of Alaska during the darkest time of the year. Cold and dark. Long runs between checkpoints with little support. How many folks are capable of doing that these days? There used to be 40 teams running the Yukon. This past Quest saw three finishers. Ridiculous.
The Yukon Quest has always operated under two separate boards; one in Alaska and the other in the Yukon. Since the Yukon Quest’s inception, there has always been a bit of friction between boards. Occasionally, disagreements in management have led to temporary breaks. That is where we are today. Declining entries have caused much discussion, leading to different solutions proposed by the folks currently in charge.
The Alaska side seems committed to a long race. The Canadians say there is little interest in a 1,000-mile event. Their solution is to hold several races, the longest being a 450-mile race. The Canadians could be right, but may be overlooking a few more obvious factors, i.e., the Alaska race had almost one running — the Alaska race was only 300 miles. Also, to get into Canada, entrants must be vaccinated against COVID. Not everyone is willing to do that; especially fringe mushers from smaller kennels who may be a bit more “Bushy.”
These fringe mushers are the bread and butter of the Yukon Quest, or used to be. Maybe, just maybe, instead of arguing about what kind of race to run, organizers should get to together and try to put something together that appeals to the small kennels. That worked once and may just do the trick again. Should the Canadian government insist on vaccination as a requirement, then an all-Alaskan event might be a distinct possibility. The Quest is not the Iditarod. The race should not set up to be the baby brother of that race. Mushers don’t like cold and dark these days? Hold the Yukon Quest near the end of March. Long runs between checkpoints not your thing? Run the Quest down the Yukon, once teams reach Circle, instead of up the river. Start the Yukon Quest — and end, in Fairbanks; 90 miles would be the longest run. The villages along the Yukon would welcome a race such as the Quest.
Returning the race closer to the original format could once again attract the few small kennels that are left. Twelve dogs is plenty. The Percy-De-Wolfe, a 200 mile-race out of Dawson, to Eagle and back, used to have a seven-dog limit and allowed no dogs to be dropped. However the Yukon Quest is reinvented, the focus needs be on once again attracting a minimum of 20 dog teams. The Alaska board and the Canadians should be querying kennels as to what might cause them to consider running.
The Quest finishers club is not who to ask. Us old dudes are not necessarily running these races these days. Ask the kennels who might be racing, or just might be looking for an event that is Alaskan. Let’s put on an event that has an Alaska feel, where the checkpoints are run by Alaskans, not volunteers from Texas and Oklahoma. It is possible some of the old geezers might hook ‘em up for one last hurrah.