The Yukon Quest is an expedition through the frozen gates of hell. Half in the Yukon and half in Alaska, the 1,600-kilometre dogsled race has earned a reputation for being the toughest in the world.
The distance between checkpoints is longer than the famous Iditarod, and the terrain is more challenging. The route follows a former gold-rush trail through four mountain passes and over riverbeds where the ice is as jumbled as a jigsaw puzzle. Mushers competing in the race have been stalked by wolves and charged by moose. In 2014, a team of Canadian Rangers was dispatched to rescue one contestant who was concussed after he dozed off and fell from his sled. Temperatures plunge to minus-50, and there can be blinding snow.
It is breathtaking and hair-raising all at once.
“Sometimes it is beautiful and perfect, sometimes you are cursing and screaming,” says Brian Wilmshurst, who is driving one of 21 teams of huskies in the race that begins in Whitehorse on Saturday. The winner won’t reach the finish line in Fairbanks, Alaska, for at least 10 days. “I have seen amazing things – a herd of hundreds of caribou and Northern Lights like you wouldn’t believe. But I have also been chest-deep in water when it was 40-below zero. I wondered if I was going to survive.”
A native of Peterborough, Ont., Wilmshurst moved to the Yukon 13 years ago with his wife. The first winter there, he volunteered to work at a checkpoint on the Yukon Quest. He bought a team of sled dogs the following year, and is now entered in the race for the fifth time.
“Friends in Ontario ask my wife and me when we are coming back, but I can’t see us doing that,” says Wilmshurst, 35, who lives in Dawson City, nearly 6,000 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The North Pole is only half the distance as Toronto. “The only time I feel stress is when I get low on dog food.”
To have the energy and strength to pull a sled in the Yukon Quest, Wilmshurst’s 14 Alaskan huskies each eat 10,000 to 12,000 calories of meat, salmon and kibble a day. The dogs weigh between 40 and 70 pounds.
“I do whatever I can to pay for dog food,” says Wilmshurst, who works as an airport security officer and takes on odd jobs to make ends meet. “Mushers are like that. You do whatever you can to feed your habit.”
There are seven Canadians in this year’s starting field, including Ed Hopkins, who has finished in the top 10 five times. He was third in 2015, and fifth a year ago.
Originally from Aylmer, Que., Hopkins lives in 10 Mile, Yukon, about 100 kilometres south of Whitehorse. He is married to a fellow musher, Michelle Phillips, and is doing the Yukon Quest for the ninth time.
“It is lunacy,” he says. “There is a learning curve every day. It is hard to keep ahead of it.”
Hopkins has run dogs for more than three decades. In the beginning, he was a handler for Alaska’s Susan Butcher, who won the Iditarod four times.
“There are 14 dogs with 14 different personalities, and each brings something different,” says Hopkins, who has also done the Iditarod. “It is like any other sport. It takes a lot of coaching and management. Some dogs don’t run well when paired together.
“It’s like working in an office. There are people you struggle to work with, and others where it is seamless. Somehow, you figure it out. You glue a team together piece by piece.”
The Yukon Quest begins in a cacophony of excited yips, barks and howls but soon becomes a physically and mentally exhausting endurance test mostly done in silence and isolation. Mushers camp along the trail with their dogs each night. Some portions of the course are so remote that the only way to observe mushers is by air.
“It is a pretty epic, eventful run,” says Jason Campeau of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., who finished seventh in 2015 in his first attempt. “One time I went 210 miles [340 km] and never saw another human.”
A former hockey player, Campeau was born and raised in Ottawa. He oversees an IT consulting firm and lives on a 160-acre ranch in the foothills of the Rockies. He races because he loves the wilderness and being outdoors. It is not for the money: The winner in the Yukon Quest receives $22,716 (U.S.), barely enough to cover expenses.
“It is truly a sport where passion and the love of the outdoors and dogs all come together,” Campeau, 42, says. “As soon as I got into it, I fell hook, line and sinker.
But it is not an easy go. It takes a lot of commitment and dedication.”
Campeau played in the Memorial Cup in 1994 with the North Bay Centennials of the Ontario Hockey League, and won a Canadian Interuniversity Sports championship in 1998 as a centre for the University of New Brunswick.
“I have seen amazing things – a herd of hundreds of caribou and Northern Lights like you wouldn’t believe. But I have also been chest-deep in water when it was 40-below zero. I wondered if I was going to survive.”Brian Wilmshurst
He attended training camp once with the Maple Leafs, but his hockey career was cut short by a serious wrist injury. Racing in the Yukon Quest quenches his thirst for competition – and then some.
“Sometimes it is so cold at night that it is difficult to sleep,” he says. “You hunker down in your sleeping bag and wake up because you feel your body shutting down.”
A half-dozen women will lead dog teams in the race, including Yuka Honda, an immigrant from Japan now living in Whitehorse.
Honda travelled to Yellowknife in 1995 as a university student to see the Northern Lights. She was dazzled by the aurora borealis – and a dog race, too.
“I had never seen dogs that looked so happy,” she says. “I didn’t think dogs liked to pull people. My dog in Japan was lazy.”
Honda moved from Japan to Yellowknife in 1998 to pursue sled-dog racing, keeping it a secret from her mother until the last minute.
“I bought a plane ticket and everything first and then I told her,” Honda, 44, says. “She cried and tried to talk me out of it. She thought I was crazy.”
Now Honda lives in a 12-by-20-foot log cabin she built herself. The former math and physics teacher in Japan has no electricity or running water, but owns 29 Alaskan huskies that she keeps in a kennel called the Ginga Express.
This will be her third Yukon Quest, and it will not be as emotionally gruelling as last year. She finished ninth in 2016, racing only four months after her mother, Fusako, died from pancreatic cancer.
“I talked to her on the phone right before she passed away,” Honda says. “I didn’t feel like doing the race, but I promised her I would.”
A former aircraft engineer in the Royal Navy, Rob Cooke is among the few mushers in the Yukon Quest to employ Siberian huskies, which are smaller than their Alaskan cousins. He came to Canada from Britain in 2005 as part of a military exchange and decided to stayed once his deployment in Shearwater, N.S., had ended.
He and his wife, Louise, moved to Whitehorse and became Canadian citizens in 2013, and he has now done the Yukon Quest three times.
“The dogs have completely changed our lives,” Cooke says. “We went from living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle to living off the grid in the bush in the Yukon.”
A millwright, Hank DeBruin and his wife, Tanya McReady, were living in the suburbs of Guelph, Ont., when they bought their first Siberian husky puppy more than a decade ago. Then they bought a second one so the first wouldn’t be lonely, and then two more, and three more after that.
“All of my neighbours had beautifully manicured lawns,” DeBruin says. “We had a minefield full of holes. I figured it was time for us to move somewhere else.”
Then ended up in Haliburton, Ont., near Algonquin Park. Now they own more than 140 huskies and operate a business that offers dogsled tours when Hank isn’t mushing in some far-flung race.
This is his fourth go at the Yukon Quest. Stuck in a blizzard in a mountain pass, he withdrew his team for safety’s sake during last year’s race. The snow had gotten so deep that his dogs were labouring. At one point, he even walked ahead of them wearing snowshoes to help break the trail.
“As long as the journey is good for both parties, you continue on,” he says. “When it becomes bad for one party, you stop.”
He has had encounters with moose, which he calls “the fear of the trail.” And during the Iditarod in 2012, his dogs became temporarily distracted by a wolverine.
“We were running along the coast and got stuck in a blinding snowstorm,” DeBruin says. “There were safety cabins along the route so I pulled up to one intending to stop, and then a wolverine came flying out from underneath it.
“Suddenly, we were off and running again.”
The blizzard was so heavy that DeBruin lost sight of the wolverine, but his huskies had no problem.
“We were chasing something,” he says.
The dogs chased it so far that DeBruin decided it was no use to turn around and go back to the cabin.
“When you are a musher, you have all sorts of great tales,” he says. “It’s always an adventure.”
MEET THE DOGS
The lead dog for Alberta musher Jason Campeau, Spider is a nine-year-old Alaskan husky. When Campeau competed in the Yukon Quest in 2015 for the first time, Spider took over when conditions deteriorated on the trail to the point where there was zero visibility.
“I couldn’t see anything, but Spider took me through 50 miles [80 km] of the most gruelling trail I have ever experienced,” he said. “I didn’t give him a single command. He did everything on his own. He’s very special to me.”
As a reward, Campeau invites Spider into the house to watch Hockey Night in Canada with him on Saturday nights. “He loves it,” Campeau says. “He barks every time the Oilers score.”
At nine years old, Maverick has been the lead dog for Ontario musher Hank DeBruin’s team since the Iditarod of 2010. During the Iditarod in 2012, Maverick dug his toenails into a crack in the ice to prevent the team’s 15 other dogs from being blown across the Bering Sea. A headstrong Siberian husky weighing about 55 pounds, Maverick comes by his name naturally, and often engages DeBruin in a battle of wills.
“We have a lot of arguments,” DeBruin says. “He tries to take over and tell me where to go.”
Maverick is a loving dog that basks in attention; the Yukon Quest is his sixth 1,000-mile race. He not only likes to run, but can’t get enough of the food and the affection he receives at checkpoints from fawning fans.
“He can pick up a checkpoint from 10 to 15 miles away,” Tanya McReady, the musher’s wife, says. She drives between checkpoints, carrying food and medicine along the way. “The entire team’s pace quickens when he gets wind of them.”
A seven-year-old Alaskan husky, Peggy is a key member of the team fielded by musher Brian Wilmshurst.
“Last year she ran with me but was a slow learner,” he says. “This year, she is one of my best dogs. She never runs out of energy.”
At 65 pounds, she is an impressive-looking dog.
“I call her the Pegosaurus because she is so big,” Wilmshurst says. “I have to keep an eye on her, otherwise she is into everyone else’s food bowl. She will eat until she explodes if you let her.
“She is a goofball. She always has a goofy smile on her face.”
A seven-year-old Siberian husky that weighs 45 pounds, Maddie has been the heart of musher Rob Cooke’s team for the last half-dozen years. She is the only female among 13 males, and has proven to be smart, tough and resilient.
With his team struggling during the 2015 Yukon Quest, Cooke experimented with different dogs in the lead and eventually put Maddie alone out front. From that point on, she led the team to the finish line, a distance of more than 800 km.
“When I put her in the lead, she gave me this look like, ‘Why didn’t you think of that sooner?’” Cooke says.
Maddie had a litter in the fall of 2015, so she missed the Yukon Quest while playing mom. She is back this year and will lead a team that has logged 32,000 miles (more than 51,000 km) between them. One dog, Loonie, has run every kilometre of every race that Cooke has ever done. Another dog, Max, has his own fan club and Facebook page, and an ego to match.
In comparison, Cooke says Maddie is quiet and unassuming.
“She is lovely,” he says. “A no-nonsense kind of dog.”
An eight-year-old Alaskan husky, Dona is musher Gaetan Pierrard’s best leader. Named after one of his friends, she is a friendly and happy dog that weighs about 45 pounds.
A robotics engineer, Pierrard is originally from Belgium but did a cross-country tour of Canada after he graduated university to improve his command of English.
While in Dawson City, he got a glimpse of the Yukon Quest and now lives in Mendenhall, Yukon, about 60 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse. This is his second Yukon Quest and he is looking to improve on his 18th-place finish last year with help from Dona.
“She has her own mind,” Pierrard says. “When she is off the leash, she doesn’t listen to me. She will take off and not want to come back. But when she is on the line, she follows every command.”
During the Yukon Quest last year, Pierrard had to stop at one point and untangle his dogs. As he was doing that, he unhooked Dona for a second.
“She ran away from me,” Pierrard says. “My heart started pounding and I yelled for her to come back.”
This time, Dona returned and was soon back in front of the team.
“She is special,” Pierrard says.
– Marty Klinkenberg