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Alaska organizers say they’re ending Yukon Quest partnership with Canada over mandatory rest proposal

Alaska organizers of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race say they are ending their partnership with their Canadian counterparts over a proposal to require longer mandatory rest periods, along with other changes.

The Quest, Alaska’s longest international sled-dog race, is a 1,000-mile event held on historic routes linking the Klondike and Interior Alaska gold fields.

If the two sides do split, it means the end of the race as it’s been run since 1984.

The Yukon Quest is governed by separate boards in Canada and Alaska.

Organizers in Alaska on Monday announced that the two governing bodies “will no longer work together to stage an international race.”

The split stems from a disagreement between the two sides on “significant proposed rule changes” to the 2023 race including the amount of required rest time for mushers and their teams, Alaska organizers said.

The Yukon board of directors told the Alaska board they couldn’t support the race without 120 hours of mandatory rest — which equals five days, according to Mark Weber, vice president for Yukon Quest International, Ltd., the Alaskan half of the governing body.

Current rules require teams to take a minimum of 50 hours rest at checkpoints along the route, including a 36-hour stop in Dawson City required of all competitors.

Weber called the disagreement over required rest “a great opposition of philosophies.”

The Alaska board’s statement Monday said the proposed rule changes “would have irreparably altered the fundamental principles on which the Yukon Quest was founded, specifically, that it was to be a long-distance wilderness race that would challenge the bush skills of traditional Arctic mushers.”

The Canadian board also proposed 100-, 250-, and 450-mile races in the Yukon that would coincide with the main marquee event, as well as a shift in the financial arrangement that put a larger burden of support on Alaskan organizers, Weber said.

“I think at this point we got completely off guard by the Yukon Board,” he said. “They then said, ‘That will not work at all, and we will dissolve the cooperation.’ ”

Canadian organizers say Monday’s statement from their Alaska counterparts came as a surprise.

“It’s a real shot across the bow and I don’t know why,” said Susie Rogan, board president for the Yukon Quest International Association, the Canadian half of the governing body.

“I don’t know what the heck is going on. We had a good relationship with these people, at least we thought we did,” she said, adding that she had only received an emailed version of the news release announcing the dissolution because she is on a list for Yukon Quest finishers.

Rogan described recent meetings between the two boards as largely amicable and with a willingness to find compromises.

But, she said, the Canadian board is serious about adding rest, and told their Alaska counterparts that “the existing board was not going to participate” in a race that maintained the 2020 rest scheme.

A statement from Canadian race organizers Tuesday expressed disappointment about the Alaskans’ move to “unilaterally dissolve the ongoing partnership,” and categorically disagrees with the characterization of the dispute.

“In a Joint Board Executive Committee meeting on April 29, the Yukon Board agreed to hold the 2023 1,000-mile race utilizing the 2020 rules as the Alaskans demanded, with the request that additional data be collected,” the release stated, specifying the targeted data pertains largely to rest and veterinary care. “Acceptance of those requests by the Alaskan Board was not a requirement of the Yukon Board to host a joint race in 2023.”

Rogan said the plan was to have a special meeting with their race participants on how to proceed.

“We can’t make a decision to dissolve the Yukon Quest as some board members, we’re supposed to be representing our membership,” she said.

Even before the pandemic took hold, the Quest was struggling with dwindling popularity — a record-low field of 15 mushers started the 2020 race — and the Alaska part of race was facing significant financial challenges.

The transboundary nature of the grueling long-distance race, which many mushers believe to be more exacting than its higher-profile sibling, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, complicated operations during the pandemic. This year, separate mid-distance races were held on either side of the border. Brent Sass won the 350-mile competition this year before going on to win his first Iditarod.

The Yukon Quest will still hold a race in the winter of 2023 in Alaska, though Weber said details will not be released on the particulars until later this month.

Correction: This story has been updated to add information from a Tuesday statement from the Yukon Quest International Association and correct the mileage of proposed Yukon races. The Canadian board had proposed 100-, 250-, and 450-mile races in the Yukon that would coincide with the main marquee event, not 100-, 200-, and 550-mile races.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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