FAIRBANKS — I found myself in a van loaded with Yukon Quest officials late last month, making the long trip from Fairbanks to Whitehorse for the start of the 1,000-mile sled dog race. They spent the ride swapping stories of near-death experiences, 50-below temperatures and daring rescues.
Fourteen hours later, here’s what I thought: I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into, but I figured I was going to enjoy it.
Now that the Quest is over, it turns out both those things were true.
Two weeks’ worth of stories and photos later, following 26 dog teams through the Yukon and Interior Alaska feels like a highlight of my 20-year reporting career.
I’m sure my first voyage along the trail didn’t provide the full Quest experience, but I did get a nice sample — a queasy ride in a small plane, a hike to a remote cabin and many cups of strong coffee. Nobody seems to sleep much along the trail, although spectators and journalists get quite a bit more rest than the groggy mushers who arrive at each checkpoint.
But there’s a reason why so many mushers, handlers and veterinarians keep returning to the Quest year after year. It’s a crazy one-of-a-kind party, featuring amazing athletes, unbelievable tales of endurance and a spectacular route most people will never experience.
The mushers travel most of it in the snowy dark, the trail illuminated by their headlamps as their dogs silently lead the way. They pass through a few of the most historic towns in the North, communities like Dawson City and Eagle that still retain some of their Gold Rush aura.
When the race begins in Fairbanks next year, I’ll be at the starting line, carrying fond memories of my time on the trail.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter at @FDNMquest.