Powered by 14 huskies, mushers follow frozen rivers, climb four mountain ranges and brave -40 temperatures and raging blizzards, sleeping and eating on the trail with their dogs.
"It puts you to the test," said Alaskan musher Allen Moore. "At the time you think, 'I'm never going to do this again.' But when it's over you can't wait to do it again."
Mr. Moore captured this year's Yukon Quest early Monday, completing the 1,600-kilometre run from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, in eight days, 18 hours and 57 minutes – considered the toughest sled-dog race in the world. In addition to the $18,930 prize, Mr. Moore earned a place in mushing history: He and Aliy Zirkle were the first husband and wife to win the Quest, Ms. Zirkle taking the race in 2000. In less than three weeks, they'll be competing against each other in the Iditarod, another 1,600-kilometre race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Ms. Zirkle will be running Mr. Moore's winning team. "She needs to have a chance too," he said at the finish line.
Mr. Moore, 55, blames his daughters for his deranged passion. "When they were seven or eight, they wanted a couple of dogs," he said. "Then they wanted to race, and it seemed like no big deal, so we got a few more – then a few more. And guess who ended up training them?" Now, Mr. Moore's daughters have families of their own, and he's got 42 huskies.
He lost last year's Quest by 26 seconds. "You could say that was the motivation that made me go faster this year," he said. But winning is not the only part of it. For Mr. Moore, it's more about the connection with his dogs. "You raise them from pups and they're just like kids," he said. "It's a strong bond. And when they get old, they come inside and eat popsicles on the couch. It's a good life."
In the old days, said former dog racer Roger Alfred – a Selkirk First Nation elder from the tiny Yukon community of Pelly Crossing – the dogs lived off moose meat, Arctic char and bear fat, and if they got sick, herbal tinctures were blown down their throat through the hollow shaft of an eagle feather.
Now, fleece penis warmers, neoprene shoulder wraps and Gore-Tex dog coats have replaced the beads and embroidery that once decorated many racing blankets. High-protein kibble prepared with everything from Pacific wild salmon and organic kelp to rosemary extract and vitamin B12 has made the pots of homemade dog gruel simmering on mushers' stoves obsolete. Lightweight ash sprint sleds like Mr. Alfred's are leaden artifacts compared with the space-age aluminum and Teflon sleds on the trail today.
"Technology is changing so fast," Mr. Alfred said. "Nowadays, for us first nation people, all we can do is enjoy the sport as spectators."
The race is never predictable. A few years back, four-time Quest champ Lance Mackey watched his team catch and eat an otter without even slowing down, while Mr. Moore's sleep deprivation produced hallucinations: The Energizer bunny appeared on the trail.
"Mother Nature didn't whack us on the side of the head this year, like she usually does," Mr. Moore said. Three years ago, temperatures jumped from -35 degrees to 2 degrees in less than 24 hours, pushing waist-deep water over the trail. To get their boots off at the next checkpoint, mushers had to take a hammer to the ice-encrusted snaps. And in 2006, a Blackhawk helicopter was called in to rescue six Quest mushers and 88 sled dogs after a raging blizzard trapped them on a mountaintop in central Alaska.
Judges can disqualify mushers if they feel lives are in danger, or dog care is lacking. "They even test for doping now," Mr. Alfred said. "In my day, no one thought of that."
In her 13 years with the Yukon Quest, head veterinarian Kathleen McGill has found only two dogs with steroids or painkillers in their systems. "Sled dogs are like human marathoners," she said. "They're not like the couch-potato dogs we have at home. They're canine athletes, and they're eating 10,000 calories a day."
On the trail, vets do "nose-to-tail physicals" to ensure the dogs are fit to run. "The dogs can't speak for themselves, so we're their advocates," Dr. McGill said. One dog died in this year's race; it had a twisted intestine. "This could have happened anywhere, even at home," she said.
"We've had domesticated dogs for 10,000 years," Dr. McGill said. "But the unique bond between a musher and their dogs is something to see. Without it none of this would happen – the dogs just wouldn't go."
Mr. Moore's dogs, in victory, couldn't have been happier. "They were perky at the end," he said, "and all their tails were wagging."