EAGLE — It’s dinnertime Friday night, and the Eagle Community School’s commons are jam-packed for the chili dinner that’s being served. The few cafeteria tables are full of locals, eager to convene with the group of outsiders who flew into town for the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race.
Eagle, a town of about 150 nestled against the Yukon River, is used to the commotion each February. Perhaps most importantly for the Quest and the rest of the traveling circus that’s following the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, the small, tight-knit community is happy to embrace the visitors with open arms.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love,” the school’s principal, Kristy Robbins, said of hosting the Quest’s following each year. “We house the international press here. We house the race officials, the vets, the customs agent, all of that.”
The community’s rich mushing tradition is on display around the school, which has 23 students on its roster between preschool and 12th grade. There’s a wooden sled hanging from one ceiling, while black-and-white mushing photographs line a nearby wall.
Most people in Eagle love running sled dogs, so the week the Quest rolls into town is a treat. Especially when you account for the fact Eagle can’t be reached by road during the winter months, it can be quiet and lonely before the race brings an influx of people to town each winter.
“It’s the main event of the year for everybody,” said Wayne Hall, who has lived in Eagle since 1993 and is the father of Matt Hall, the 2017 Quest champion. “For our family, our whole life revolves around dogs. From the time my son was a little baby, he was raised in a dog sled. Now he’s at this level, and we’re proud of it.”
While the Halls are drawn to the race because of their son, who now lives in Two Rivers, other Eagle residents are excited for the Quest because it gives them an opportunity to showcase the town’s hospitality.
John Borg falls into that category.
Borg was Eagle’s mayor for seven years before serving as the community’s postman for 28 more. He gave it up in 2000, when the technology boom really started changing life in the Bush.
“When they were getting a little serious about going to the computer, it was time to go,” Borg says, stopping the spoon of chili he’s holding before it reaches his mouth. “The computer was dial-up and very seldom worked all day.”
Now Borg is a key contact for people who fly in for the Quest. He drives a 1970 Chevrolet truck that’s easy to spot from the air while approaching the small runway on the outskirts of town.
Borg listens to the radio to hear when incoming flights are soon to land. Once they touch down, he piles race officials and volunteers, in addition to veterinarians and members of the media, into the back of his truck, which is sky blue and has a covered canopy perched above orange shag carpet.
He likes to shuttle people to and from the airport, mostly because he feels like his truck allows them to ride through the small community in style.
“My truck is well equipped to do the job because it’s an old truck, it runs good and it’s safe to use,” he says during another break in dinner. “And it’s a classic. It’s a ‘70. When people get to the airport, they’re looking for Old Blue.”
As much as those who follow the Quest throughout the entire trail look forward to making it back to the Eagle checkpoint, which is the first stop in Alaska on the way to the finish line in Fairbanks, the people around town are equally happy to spark a little life into the tiny community each year.
“It’s a nice infusion of people,” Robbins said. “It’s nice to see new faces come in, and we love entertaining.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.