PELLY CROSSING, Yukon — The Yukon Quest is a challenge for everybody. It doesn’t matter if a certain sled dog team is in great shape or if the musher is well equipped to handle the cold, often treacherous trail between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks.
Regardless of the dogs’ experience or the mushers’ pedigrees, completing the 1,000-mile race is always a tall task. It just happens to be a little bit taller for the rookies who were brave enough to hop on their sled and follow the team to the start line.
This year’s field of 30 teams has 12 rookies. For some of those first-year mushers, such as Jimmy Lebling, the race became a difficult undertaking before the race even began.
Lebling, who trained at former Quest champion Hugh Neff’s Laughing Eyes Kennel in Tok, arrived in Whitehorse the night before the race. He didn’t have a truck suitable to carry his dog box and didn’t have any handlers.
In stepped Quest legend Frank Turner, who started 23 1,000-mile Quests between his first appearance in 1984 and his final race in 2008. Turner and his wife, Anne Tayler, stepped up to help Lebling get situated, and in the process, they showed the first-year musher what the Yukon Quest family is all about.
“The neatest thing about the Yukon Quest is the Yukon,” said Lebling, whose team consists of mostly Neff’s dogs and then a few of his own. “The scenery is beautiful, but the people are amazing. I was in a real jam when I showed up, and Frank Turner and Anne Tayler have been a godsend. They helped me get to the start line.”
Through friends at a Whitehorse Ford dealership, Turner and Tayler helped Lebling secure a truck. Turner even volunteered to help as Lebling’s handler for the first half of the race.
It was an easy decision for Turner, who immediately recognized Lebling was the sort of person he’d like to help.
“There’s a number of people who I really respect as dog people, who are what the Yukon Quest are about, what it was envisioned to be,” Turner said Monday inside the Pelly Crossing checkpoint. “And all of them, without fail, really vouched for Jimmy for being an outstanding individual.
“Strong character, loves his dogs … They don’t have to say too much more to me than that.”
With the help of Turner, Lebling arrived in Pelly Crossing, the third checkpoint on the Alaska side. He said his team’s run has posed some challenges — including dealing with dogs affected by frostbite in the 30 below temperatures. But there have some been magical moments for the rookie, too.
“I had never been through jumbled ice, so that was a lot of fun,” Lebling said, describing a portion of the trail on the Yukon River outside the Carmacks checkpoint. “That was really neat, to steer the team through that jumbled ice. It was like being on another planet.”
For other rookies, such as Lisbet Norris, their trouble started a little closer to the start line. The first-year competitor from Fairbanks drew bib No. 14, and thus was expected to be the 14th musher to leave Whitehorse. Norris was late to the start line, though, which forced her to start at the back of the pack.
“We just didn’t get the booties on in time, so we went to the back,” Norris said of the penalty, which also resulted in her run time beginning at her scheduled start time in addition to moving to the back of the field. “There was no real drama. It was actually kind of nice. It gave me a chance to eat my bagel.”
While some rookies have had unplanned moments in their first 1,000-mile Quest, the experience has been exactly what others expected when they signed up.
It’s been smooth sailing for Chase Tingle, who was exuberant Monday as he prepared his team for the 210-mile run to Dawson City, the final checkpoint on the Canada side.
“It’s about what I expected,” said Tingle, who is from Two Rivers. “I’ve mushed the Yukon Quest 300 on both sides, so I know this side of the trail and the other side of the trail. The part I don’t know anything about is what I’m about to do right now, so I’m about to find out about that.”
Even though the journey from Pelly to Dawson is always regarded as the first big test when the race travels from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Tingle was eager to return to the trail for a long run with his team, which he said includes a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds entering their prime.
“That’s what I love to do — long, lonely stretches in the woods — just me and my dogs camping,” Tingle said. “That’s what we train for.”
Another Fairbanks rookie, Laura Allaway, was equally giddy about the run to Dawson. She gushed about her first 1,000-mile Quest as she filled a bag with straw outside the Pelly Crossing Community Centre, which is where the checkpoint was located.
Like Tingle, Allaway is a veteran of the Quest-organized YQ300, a 300-mile race that runs the same trail as the 1,000-mile event, so she knew what she was getting into a bit. This year’s experience just solidified her love for the Quest and the race’s ability to make mushers comfortable.
“I ran the 300, so I knew how awesome the Quest is as far as the volunteers and the vets and all that,” she said. “They feed you here. I ran the Iditarod in 2015, and they don’t feed you. It’s pretty awesome to come into (checkpoints) and be treated like royalty.”
Allaway also praised the trailbreakers for pulling a fast one on the way to Braeburn, the race’s first checkpoint. She said that along the trail, mushers are met with signs with X’s on them to signify poor trail conditions that should be avoided. Although most of them were nothing serious, she encountered one section that really left her scared.
“You come into this section that’s like 10 X markers,” she said of the trip to Braeburn. “Your heart starts racing like, ‘What is this?! It must be really bad if they’re putting in 10 markers!’ But then there was absolutely nothing in the trail. So they just put a bunch of markers there just for some fun. Somebody had a sense of humor.”
Good times and bad times, the rookies sure have their share of both. But this year’s Quest has already provided each of the first-year mushers with experiences that will last a lifetime.
For Allaway, the moments she’s had on the trail so far have reaffirmed one belief she knew before the race even began.
“I love to do this,” she said as she looked up with a big, bright smile on her face. “Sometimes too much.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.