WHITEHORSE, Yukon — After weeks of debates about how the Yukon Quest trail will look when the 30 teams competing in this year’s 1,000-mile race to Fairbanks and the 13 other teams competing in the YQ300 finally get underway, the pre-race discussions are finally over.
Low snow accumulations have forced the Quest to make changes to the route in recent weeks. The race announced Jan. 19 that its YQ300 — which is normally a 300-mile race — would be shortened to 200 miles because of a lack of snow beyond Braeburn, which is the first checkpoint on the Canada side.
Two days after the Quest announced the changes for the YQ300, it sent out another news release stating teams will be required to travel by truck from Braeburn to Carmacks, the second checkpoint which is located about 77 miles from Braeburn.
On Thursday, John Mitchell, who is the trail coordinator for the Canadian Rangers on the Yukon side, met with the media to give one final trail report before the teams leave the start line at 10 a.m. AKST today at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, Yukon.
“The trail is a lot better than what we had planned,” Mitchell said. “We had very low snow conditions and warm temperatures in the winter, and that’s changed a bit in the last few weeks (for the better). We also had a lot of work done on the trail.”
Mitchell said his team of Canadian Rangers worked on the Yukon side of the trail for about 220 days. He described the process as four phases, which began months ago when four sets of patrols initially broke the trail from Whitehorse to Dawson City, the final checkpoint on the Yukon side.
The second phase, according to Mitchell, is finessing the trail. That means brushing it and building or improving bridges, in addition to marking the trail. This week he and his team finished the third phase, which was one final trip from Dawson to Whitehorse so that the rangers could provide the mushers with one last trail report.
Mitchell and his team will begin the fourth and final phase today, which is to ride snowmachines in front of the leaders all the way to Dawson City, or, in the case of the YQ300, from Whitehorse to Braeburn and then back again.
Although Mitchell said he feels the trail has improved during recent weeks, he made it a point to remind the media that conditions can change rapidly.
“The thing you have to remember about the trail is the only thing that’s constant is change,” he said. “It changes every minute, every hour and every day. What we passed over an hour ago, can just reverse itself and go bad that fast.”
One recent development that should help the trail, according to Mitchell, is the recent cold snap making its way through Whitehorse and the surrounding areas. Temperatures neared 32 degrees above zero earlier in the week, though the forecast for the start of the race is right around 20 below.
“I hope (the cold) improves it,” Mitchell said. “The first thing, we cross our fingers and pray, is that we’ll set up the few overflow areas that we have and the ice is thick enough for the teams to get across without breaking through.
“Unfortunately what happens is usually when it gets cold, it makes the glaciers more active with water coming out of the side of the hill.”
When teams leave Whitehorse for the 100-mile run to Braeburn, they’ll travel about 15 miles on the Yukon River before following the trail under the North Klondike Highway via the Takhini River Bridge. From there, teams will run on the old Dawson Overland Trail, which today is a part of the Trans Canada Trail, into Braeburn.
Mitchell said the trail to Braeburn should be excellent, though the teams can expect some overflow on the Trans Canada Trail.
“The southern section of the Trans Canada Trail is excellent,” he said. “It’s got a low base, but it’s hard and it’s fast. We have one bad section of overflow about 12 miles up the Trans Canada. After that, it’s normal Trans Canada Trail.
“There are a few flat, dry glaciers so far and a few narrow sections along the creek, but the main trail was excellent all the way through.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him for updates from the Yukon Quest trail on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.