As we put this up, dog-sled racers are dashing toward the finish line in the 1000-mile race across the northern wilderness between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, known as the
. Every February since 1984, up to 50 teams, each with one human ‘musher’ and 14 canine competitors, set off in (ahem!) cold and unpredictable weather in wild and rugged terrain, following turn-of-the-century Gold Rush and Mail Delivery dog sled routes. The Yukon Quest Champion receives a $35,000 purse.
The Yukon Quest race follows the old highway of the north -- the Yukon River, a historical route followed by prospectors to reach the Klondike gold fields. In contrast to its more famous sister race, the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is more challenging: with half as many checkpoints, an earlier start, and more rugged, higher-elevation terrain.
Teams brave 10-16 days of Arctic winter where temperatures can plummet to minus 40, wind can howl at a hundred miles an hour, and ice and open water conditions can be less than favorable. Quest sled dog teams are on their own most of the race. At checkpoints (spaced more than 200 miles apart) volunteer veterinarians who are well-versed in the issues particular to sled dogs, check the health of each animal. Between stations, mushers carry required equipment, food, and supplies. They act as cook, coach and vet, rubbing ointment on abraded paws and massaging sore doggy muscles.
Most of the Quest’s canine athletes are mixed breed “Alaskan Huskies,” descendants of northern breeds, including the Siberian husky. These dogs are lean animals bred from stock that flourished during the Klondike Gold Rush when dog sleds were the primary (and most reliable) means of transportation. With airplanes taking over the mail routes in the 1920s and 1930s, the sled dog’s role decreased.
These dogs are fit and boy, can they run! Overcoats that stave off the buildup of snow and ice, an insulating undercoat, and sturdy feet (protected by snow booties), their characteristic toughness and endurance are testimonial to their ancestry. Sled dogs come in many sizes and colors, but are generally between 35 and 70 pounds. Mushers choose their teams to balance size and stride to achieve greatest efficiency within the team. Of course, they also look for dogs who love to run in harness!
This year, most of the twenty-four mushers are from Alaska, but Montana, Saskatchewan, Switzerland, and Belgium are also represented. About half are rookies, and six are women. Mushers must be at least 18 years old and have demonstrated their ability to complete a 200-mile and 300-mile race. All teams receive $1000 in honor of attempting the 1000 miles.