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The Yukon Quest, a race made for the books

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 12:30 am | Updated: 10:08 am, Sun Jan 13, 2013.

These days it’s east to take the Yukon Quest for granted. At the close of its third decade, the race has become a world class event that annually challenges mushers and their dogs while providing fans with no shortage of excitement and good stories.

It’s so well established now that most people have either forgotten or never known that it all started as a seat-of-the-pants dream born in a barroom conversation and brought into existence by the dogged determination of a couple of people present that fateful night, assisted by countless volunteers who were caught up in the dream of establishing the toughest long distance sled dog race in the world.

One person who hasn’t forgotten is longtime Daily News-Miner contributor Elizabeth “Libbie” Martin, whose new book, “Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race” is a pictorial look back on the first running, when many people thought the entire idea of racing dogs from Fairbanks to Whitehorse along a route known to be exceptionally brutal was certainly crazy, if not outright suicidal for the participants.

Martin has gathered up a slew of photographs here, most from the inaugural running of the Quest, sprinkled in some pioneer shots from the Gold Rush that place the race’s route in its historic context, added some contemporary pictures to enhance the overall presentation, and filled in the blanks with captions and brief chapter introductions. The result is a visual recreation of that memorable first race that established what has become a Northern institution.

The book opens, appropriately enough, at the starting line in 1984, where 26 men and women, some seasoned mushers and others relative newbies, took off from Fairbanks in a chaotic rush to fulfill the dreams of LeRoy Shank and Roger D. Williams, the two guys who cooked up the idea.

Neither Shank nor Williams was running the race, they’d spent far too much time organizing the thing. While the idea had been hatched over beers, “I don’t like to have people think it was a barroom thing,” Williams explained. That’s because once the ball started rolling tremendous amounts of work went into keeping it going.

The race presented plenty of hurdles. The route was — and remains — extremely rugged. There are several mountain passes, including the notorious Eagle Summit, where high winds can strip the land of snow. Other sections follow the Yukon River and other waterways, where overflow, open leads, jumble ice and more can present serious hazards. Then there are temperatures which, in February when the race is run, can drop to 60 below or colder. All this on a course with checkpoints fewer and further between than in the Quest’s more famous cousin, the Iditarod. Then add the fact that the first Quest was run on a shoestring budget with an almost entirely volunteer crew (volunteers remain the heart of the Quest operation to this day), and it’s remarkable that anyone would volunteer to participate, much less pay an entry fee for the privilege.

The underlying idea of the Quest, however, is to honor the spirit of the North, so it’s not so surprising after all that 25 entrants from Alaska and Canada, along with one minister from Minnesota, signed up.

Martin pays tribute to just about everyone who was there for that first race. She includes pictures of many of them, as well as a bit of background on their lives and what had drawn them to mushing in general and to the new race in particular. It was the one year that all the entrants were rookies, and each had their own motives for being there.

“People run dogs for many reasons,” Martin explains. “Some want to live for the Alaska of old, the tradition of being part of a storied history; others love a challenge, and running a team of highly intelligent huskies in Alaskan winters is most definitely a challenge; others sort of fall into it. They get one or two dogs, and, as with eating potato chips, cannot stop — pretty soon they have 12 or 13. What else does one do with a baker’s dozen of Alaskan huskies but harness them to a sled and yell ‘Hike!’? It is an addictive sport, and like most addictions, it is lifelong and expensive.”

Martin follows this ragtag batch from start to finish with a huge collection of photographs from a range of sources including the Quest itself, the Shank family, the News-Miner, and other places. Many of them will be new even to diehard mushing fans, making this book a must-have for serious followers of the sport.

Familiar mushers like Sonny Lindner, Jeff King, Bill Cotter and Joe Runyan are seen here when they were young, eager and helping to build dogsled racing into the multinational sport it has become today. Several shots of mushers taking off from the Fairbanks starting line are included. Lots of aerial photos of dog teams dwarfed by the surrounding wilderness give readers a sense of what the competitors in this race travel through. Scenes of mushers, their handlers and even a couple of veterinarians and a reporter, curled up asleep on whatever corner of floor or table they could locate, remind us of how exhausting the race is for everyone involved. There are plenty of action shots of teams along the trail, as well as a few “behind the scenes” pics that illustrate the work involved in keeping the race moving. And, of course, there are plenty of adorable dog pictures.

Although it has long since become a major event, Martin’s book is a fine reminder that at its heart, the Yukon Quest is still the scrappy little race that could.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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