FAIRBANKS — Fifteen teams dashed from downtown Saturday, snouts pointed to Canada, at the start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Two Rivers musher Richie Beattie, led by his lead dogs Coltrane and Wylie, began the charge at 11 a.m., the others following in 3-minute intervals during the boisterous send-off of the 1,000-mile race.
“It’s definitely nice just to get out of here, get going,” Beattie said before he headed down a chute lined with hundreds of fans on a crisp, sunny day on the Chena River.
This year’s Quest drew its smallest field of competitors in its 37-year history. Low participation and a declining purse concerns mushers, but there’s one upside to a down year: Odds have never been better for racers to win at least some prize money. The Quest distributes its purse among the top 15 finishers. This year, that will be every racer who makes it to the finish line in Whitehorse, Yukon.
That’s no small task, but race marshal Peter Reuter said recent trail reports indicate lots of snow coverage and excellent conditions.
“No problems where there shouldn’t be problems,” Reuter said. “Of course, it’s a dog race of a 1,000 miles across the toughest terrain on earth.”
Two Rivers musher Allen Moore is eyeing a fourth title, while Brent Sass of Eureka seeks his third. Any other racer would be a first-time Quest winner. But the competition is only part of what draws mushers to the Quest, Moore said.
“They do it, I do it, because we love dogs, and we would be doing it if we weren’t racing,” Moore said.
The Quest was born to be a different sort of long distance sled dog race.
In 1983, according to race literature, founders Roger Williams and Leroy Shank sought to create a race “independent of the demands of big media — with rules so tough that only mushing ‘purists’ would participate.” Quest teams cross four mountain ranges, each at elevations between 3,400 and 4,000 feet.
[Support from readers makes stories like this possible. Buy a digital subscription to adn.com for as little as $2.99 a month]
The Yukon Quest typically attracts fewer entrants than the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is the better known of the two 1,000-mile sled dog races held annually in North America. Veterans who have done both say they’re different beasts.
“I really like how the Quest has fewer checkpoints,” said musher Ryne Olson, who has completed the Quest three times. “There’s long stretches where you’re carrying all the gear that you’re going to need for the next couple days in your dogsled, which is a little different from the Iditarod where you have a checkpoint almost every 50 or 60 miles.”
Moore said a few years ago he went 750 miles without seeing another musher on the trail.
“Some people would say it’s kind of lonely out there,” Moore said. “Not to us it’s not. It’s what we look for, the places no one else can get to.”
Cantwell musher Cody Strathe, who has finished both the Quest and the Iditarod three times, said the Quest is not a race for every musher, but he prefers it.
“On Iditarod, I have nothing against people, but I don’t really want to be around them,” Strathe said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of people on that race. You can’t really get away from them.”
Running a month before Iditarod, Quest mushers see fewer daylight hours. Storms and poor conditions can challenge mushers in either race, but severe Interior cold — 50 below zero and colder sometimes — is a Quest hallmark.
“The Yukon Quest is frickin’ grueling,” said Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, who won the race in 2000, but has focused on Iditarod racing since then. She’ll travel the Quest trail this year to support Moore, her husband and kennel partner.
Despite the solitude and cold conditions, several mushers described a family-style warmth on the Quest trail. Sass said he looks forward to the hour-long conversation he’s bound to have with a man who sets up an optional hospitality stop for mushers at his Trout Creek cabin.
“I live in the Bush. My social life is not all that great," Sass said. “Quest time is kind of like my social time for the year.”
That welcoming community atmosphere is hard to pass up, Olson said.
“Whether you’re at the front of the pack or the back of the pack, they’re so excited to see you,” she said.
But even mushers who prefer the homegrown, grassroots feel of the Quest worry for the race’s future. Exposure and buzz can attract sponsors and bolster fundraising on which the race depends to build its purse. This year’s $100,000 purse is $25,000 less than two years ago, and $15,000 less than last year.
Moore said Zirkle won $30,000 when she won the race 20 years ago. This year’s winner will receive $18,930, though that prize could increase in the likely event that fewer than 15 mushers reach the finish line.
Racer Michelle Phillips of Tagish Lake, Yukon, said mushing is an expensive lifestyle. She recalled a time when it was difficult to make ends meet to pursue her passion.
“The purse needs to be addressed,” Phillips said. “Mushers need to make money. When you’re struggling to get by, time and time again, it’s hard to keep doing the race.”
“We put a lot into this,” Beattie said. “A lot of us aren’t rich people and we put every dime into this sort of thing. So of course getting some sort of payoff that seems worth your time and effort would be nice. But that’s not why we do this. It’s not about the money.”
John Dixon, president of the Quest’s Alaska board of directors, said the organization is always looking for ways to attract more sponsors and raise money.
“Just like any nonprofit organization, we struggle for finances. We’re always out trying to find ways to increase the purse …” Dixon said. “Because you’ll have more mushers if there’s more money on the line.”
The Quest peaked in 1988 with 47 racers. Most races have drawn between 25-40 mushers over the 37 years.
On Saturday, fans watched from bridges and lined the trail along the Chena River to watch the teams pass. Temperatures near 20 below zero seemed to bother few. The moment was extra special for musher Dave Dalton of Healy. It was his 30th and his last Yukon Quest, he said. His first was in 1988.
“Every time I bootie a dog in 30 below, I’m saying ‘This is the last time. This is the last time.’ So, it’s pretty neat. My mind is over it now,” he said.
Dalton said he hopes to return as a Quest volunteer to help the race get “back on track,” but he also sees reasons to be optimistic.
“We have full fields in the qualifier races, so we have rookies coming up for the future,” he said.
Near the starting line, Moore, 62, joked that he hoped to be the Quest’s first winner who qualified to receive Social Security. Fewer people might notice when the first racer reaches Whitehorse, but that’s part of what makes the Yukon Quest one of a kind, Zirkle said.
“People go climb Everest to climb Everest. And people go climb the two mountains next to it because they just want to climb the mountain next to it. They’re going to get nothing for it and they’re going to get no sponsorship, but they’re doing simply because it’s what they do,” Zirkle said.
“And that’s the Quest,” she said.