LeRoy Shank

LeRoy Shank, left, a founder of the Yukon Quest, and Hugh Neff, his grandson-in-law and Quest musher, talk about the sport. 

Yukon Quest co-founder LeRoy Shank, 79, hopes to see his granddaughter, Olivia Shank, 32, finish this year’s 1,000-mile race to Whitehorse. It will be a full circle conclusion to his life in sled dog racing.

LeRoy is in the end stags of a decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Olivia and her husband, musher Hugh Neff, are his caregivers.

Shank remembers the beginning of the Quest. He said the race was created as an affordable alternative to the Iditarod.

“There was no trail. We put in that route with a handful of people. Good volunteers are the backbone of most races,” Shank said. “The original Quest was more for woodsmen to race and was only 12 dogs. A guy could come out of the woods and win it like Hugh did. There were no tours then, and all of the mushers were woodsmen and Natives.”

Neff move to Alaska from Evanston, Illinois, in 1995. He has competed in the Quest 18 times and won it twice.

Shank moved to Alaska from Brush, Colorado, where he grew up a farm boy in 1960. He worked for 40 years as a pressman at the Daily News-Miner. In the 1970s, he met Rod Perry, of Iditarod fame, when they were both running trap lines on the Kantishna River. He bought some dogs from Perry and eventually acquired a kennel outside of Fairbanks.

“Two of those dogs, Midnight and Marshmallow, ran in the Iditarod, the Quest, and with Col. Norman Vaughn on an expedition to the Antarctic,” Neff said.

“Dogs now are faster, smaller sprint dogs that look more like greyhounds,” Shank said. “What’s missing are the Native mushers. When we started, half the mushers were Native. They do sprints rather than distance races because that’s how their trails are.”

Olivia worked 120 days straight cleaning rooms at the Deadhorse Camp at Prudhoe Bay to make money to fund her racing effort. Then she moved her dogs to the Coldfoot Camp in the Brooks Mountains where she has been training and conditioning them for the race while working at that camp.

Hopes are high that she will finish, and LeRoy will be able to celebrate with her. This will be her second start in the Quest.

Four years ago, Olivia named a new pup LeRoy after her grandfather, and that dog has worked its way into her mix of lead dogs for the upcoming Quest, which starts Feb. 1 in Fairbanks.

Freelance writer Gary Tomlin lives and works at the Yukon River Camp.