Even in the dead of winter, I’ve found there’s usually something going on around Dawson City. But since many happenings — like dinners, or art shows, or concerts, or an excellent reading at the library by the Writer-In-Residence this coming week — all take place indoors, on the outside the action may sometimes be hard to spot.
This week, however, the buzz around Dawson City was palpable and impossible to miss. The downtown streets were suddenly teeming with vehicles and visitors. It was all because The Yukon Quest had come to town.
The Quest is an annual dogsled race, on a par with the famed Iditarod in Alaska. Both men and women, varying in age from their teens to their sixties, compete equally in both events. Although the two races run for an identical 1000 miles, many feel The Quest is actually a more challenging race, since the distances between checkpoints are greater. It usually takes between 10 and 16 days to complete, depending on weather and trail conditions. (The longest race time was in 1988, when Ty Halvorson took 20 days, 8 hours, and 29 minutes to finish. In 2000, Aliy Zirkle became the first woman to win the race, finishing in 10 days, 22 hours, and 57 minutes. )
Many racers, known as mushers, compete in both events, although the Iditarod has more sponsors and a bigger purse. Still, over $150,000 in prize money goes to the top 15 finishers of The Yukon Quest, with the first across the finish line taking home $38,000. 2nd Place receives $30,000, while 3rd Place wins $22,000. The first musher into Dawson City, who was Allen Moore this year, will also receive 4 ounces of gold nuggets if he finishes the race.
The Yukon Quest is an international race, in that it runs between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in the south of the Yukon. (It’s also international because, in addition to Canadian and American mushers, there were two Russians and a Norwegian in this year’s 24-person field).
After some disagreement whether to run north-south or vice versa, the start and end points now flip each year. Either way, Dawson City is always the midpoint, and the beginning of a mandatory 36-hour layover for the racers. Here, veterinarians also check over the dogs to make sure they’re standing up to the rigors of the race. Mushers are allowed a team of 14 dogs to start, and will drop any dogs that are experiencing issues (physical or mental).
Now, I have to note something here in case some bleeding heart type reads this and starts whining about animal cruelty. You only have to look into the face of one of these dogs as they mush by to see how much fun they’re having. These animals have been bred to do this, and live to run. They are superb athletes, balancing strength and size, speed and teamwork. (Picture a human running a marathon a day, for a dozen days — except that the dogs sometimes do a hundred miles in one day.)
They also have to have good feet since, to quote a mushers’ aphorism, “As go their feet, so go the dogs.” This means toes that are not splayed out, and paws that are resistant to both wear and injury. Nowadays, for long races, they also have special booties to protect their paws from the cold.
During their stopover here, a tent city forms in West Dawson (across the Yukon River from the main burg) and there, with the help of support teams, the dogs are bedded down in hay-filled shelters. The mushers usually grab a hotel room in town and catch up on some sleep before taking off for the final leg of the race. Departures are staggered, based on their arrival times into the Dawson checkpoint.
One of the best things about the Quest is the variety in the people who come to town because of it. A finer display of fur and facial hair you’ll not see anywhere. The local Information Centre on Front Street becomes the official race checkpoint, and a hub of activity, including a fair bit of media coverage. The onlookers spilled outside to the official crossing line, known as the “chute” to cheer every time one of the teams came in, and especially when local boy Brian Wilmshurst arrived. Dozens of volunteers help out, and while the race is on, it’s also one of the best places in Dawson to get home cooked food.
Once upon a time dogsleds were the only practical way of getting around this part of the world in wintertime. Everything that moved during the frozen season — people and supplies — did so by dog sled. Planes, trucks, and snowmobiles have greatly reduced the dog team’s working role. The beautiful animals that now compete in dogsled races are one of the last reminders of this storied, centuries-old tradition, and I feel privileged to have witnessed these elite canine athletes in action.