On Saturday 15 mushers, each pulled by 14 sled dogs, will cross the starting line of the 37th Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race in downtown Fairbanks, beginning what many considered the most difficult sled dog race in the world.
The race follows historic mail routes and century-old trails to gold rush sites. Much of the race is on or next to the Yukon River.
“It’s a nine- to 14-day adventure, which is totally supported with a team of 18 vets and probably 50 logistics people, officials, pilots,” said Marti Steury, the Yukon Quest’s executive director in Alaska.
“Basically the teams pack up their sleds and carry enough gear to go from point A to point B and there’s nine points in between,” Steury added referring to the nine checkpoints that lie between Fairbanks and Whitehorse.
The 15-team starting field is the smallest in the race’s history.
The 1,000-mile journey alternates between starting in Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon each year and does not allow any outside assistance. Thus, all supplies mushers will need during the race are sent to the checkpoints prior to the start.
The only exception to this rule is the Dawson City checkpoint located at mile 526, where mushers are required to rest for 36 hours.
In Dawson City, handlers are allowed to feed and care for the teams before the team gets underway on the second half of the race.
Mushers are also allowed to leave tired or injured dogs at each of the nine checkpoints and two designated dog drops, but not replace them.
The Quest is one of two 1000-mile sled dog races in the United States. The other is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. However, because the Iditarod has 22 checkpoints and begins in March, the temperatures are usually warmer and the distances between checkpoints are shorter. Because of this, some mushers consider it to be the less challenging of the two competitions.
“One of the things that we do with (dogs) that is just a joy and a privilege is we challenge ourselves by doing long trail trips and that is what these races are,” Steury said.
“There are a lot of serious competitors, there’s a lot of people that want to do this for the experience and there’s a lot of people that just want to share the time on the trail with their dogs.”
Of this year’s group of mushers, three are rookies, including 32-year old Olivia Shank-Neff. Although she is listed as Webster by the race because that’s what her passport says, the rookie uses the surname Shank-Neff.
Shank-Neff is the granddaughter of LeRoy Shank, one of the original founders of the 1,000-mile race. She’s also married to two-time Quest champion Hugh Neff. Her goal is to finish the race before her grandfather passes.
Among the 12 veterans is 62-year old Dave Dalton who will be making his 30th and final Yukon Quest start.
In addition to the 15 competitors beginning their attempt at the Quest on Saturday, 21 racers will also be starting the YQ300 — 300 miles along the same route.
The YQ300 is also a qualifying race for the Quest as mushers are required to successfully complete a 200-mile and a 300-mile sled dog race within the previous 42 months to enter.
The first racer will start the Quest at 11 a.m. The first YQ300 racer will start at 3 p.m. The teams will start in three-minute intervals.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.
Where to watch the race
The Yukon Quest starts at 11 a.m. at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center in downtown Fairbanks. There is plenty of parking and viewing space along the banks of the Chena River. (Please be wary of ice conditions.) The Yukon Quest 300 begins at the same spot at 3 p.m.
Viewers can also see the mushers pass under the Nordale Road bridge a couple of hours (17 miles) after the start.
The trail goes along Chena Hot Springs Road from about Mile 21 to Mile 27, where it crosses onto the north side. There is parking available at Pleasant Valley Store at Mile 23. At Mile 24, 24 Mile Java and Treats is hosting a “Trailgate” party, starting at 2 p.m. until the final musher passes. Bring lawn chairs. There will be a bonfire and local music.
The trail again crosses under CHSR at Mile 42. The Two Rivers checkpoint is at Mile 53 (about 30 miles from the community it’s named for.)
2020 Yukon Quest mushers
Olivia Webster (Shank-Neff)