The pungent, draining work of preparing for the world’s toughest dogsled race is nearly done: 27,000 dog booties itemized, 16,000 kilograms of chicken skins and other calorie-rich treats stashed along the route, 1,600 kilometres of trail cleared.
With one week to go before the start of this year’s Yukon Quest, just two vital components remain missing: cold and mushers.
Eighteen hardy competitors have entered Yukon Quest this year, the smallest field since the legendary race began 30 years ago. And with temperatures at the Whitehorse finishing line nearing 10 degrees on Thursday, it threatens to be one of the soggiest runnings on record as well.
“I’m wondering if I’m going to need a life jacket this year,” said Brian Wilmshurst, a 32-year-old Yukon Quest veteran based in Dawson City. “I have a buddy in Fairbanks who was scrambling this morning to find someone with freezers for his dog feed. That doesn’t happen much in Alaska in the winter.”
In Whitehorse, race organizer Marie Belanger watched the Yukon River from her office with a sense of dread on Thursday. The race follows the path of the frozen river for several hundred kilometres. “Right now the plan is to run the race as usual,” she said. “But I’m staring at the river right now and there’s a big open lead of water.”
In all, mushers have stashed 45,000 pounds of food and gear at nine checkpoints along the course. This year that will include a surfeit of rain pants and other wet-weather gear to cope with possible dampness. A team of Canadian Rangers who cleared the trail on the Canadian side reported a number of soggy areas.
Last year’s champion, Allen Moore, 56, has made a point of fording knee-deep rivers during his training races. “The dogs don’t like that,” he said from his home in Two Rivers, Alaska, 48 kilometres east of the race starting point in Fairbanks. “But you have to simulate race situations. We pull the dogs into the water. I get wet, they get wet. They freeze, I freeze. It’s a nice time.”
Warm or cold, each of the 14 dogs on every team burns 10,000 calories a day – about the same as swimmer Michael Phelps at his Olympian peak. But their tastes change based on the weather – more water and fish when it’s warm, more beef and chicken skins when it’s cold. Most mushers keep a variety of meats on hand to adapt to the team’s fickle palates, including horse, chicken livers and beaver.
“Beaver is the secret,” Mr. Wilmhurst said. “When it’s cold it’s like an energy drink for dogs. Really gross meat, though, kind of like Jell-O.”
The Yukon Quest has long been considered a tougher test than its more renowned counterpart, the Iditarod. The Quest is run at a darker time of year. It features fewer checkpoints, smaller teams and a more mountainous terrain. “In the Quest, you have to carry a lot more for a longer period on steeper ground,” said Mr. Moore, who runs both races.
The torturous schedule leaves minimal time to sleep, an hour or two a day over the course of eight to 12 days, Mr. Moore said. “By the last few days you’re hallucinating. I’ve seen the Energizer Bunny out there on the Yukon River waving at me as I went by,” he said. “The week leading up to the race I’m taking Tylenol PM every night to make sure I’m rested.”
Nobody can say for sure why the field is so small for this year’s race. Ideally, race organizers want 30 to 35 mushers. The previous low was 21 entries in 1996 and 2005.
Some blame the decline on the combination of a taxing race and a modest purse – $19,000 for first place last year, down from $40,000 in 2007. “Lots of guys are going for easier races,” Mr. Wilmshurst said. “Why beat the crap out of your dogs for less money? It’s a bummer. But I think it’ll bounce back.”
The total prize money is up slightly this year, but a host of 480-kilometre races offering similar cash could be drawing mushers elsewhere. It’s a trend Quest veterans don’t understand.
“If you’re in dog-mushing purely to make money, you’re way off the mark.,” said Aliy Zirkle, the first woman to win with her victory in 2000. “The purses are slightly irrelevant. Whether you win 15 or 30 or 45 thousand a year, it still barely covers how much we all spend on dog food.”
For those devoted to the Quest, the allure isn’t the cash, but a kind of transcendence. “I and everyone else in the race ask ourselves often why we do it,” Mr. Moore said. “How soon we forget when the race is over what we went through. But there’s something about the challenge, the obstacles – it does something to you.”