DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Dog teams aren’t alone in running the Yukon Quest trail this winter.
The 1,000-mile trail between Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon, and Fairbanks gets packed down each year for the sled dog race and marked with wooded stakes topped with reflective tape. The existence of the long cross-country route attracts runners, bikers, skiers and snowmachiners in addition to Quest teams.
Many come for an organized race that starts the day after the Yukon Quest. The Whitehorse-based Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra is a human-powered race of up to 430 miles that can be run, biked or skied.
For some diehard endurance athletes, 430 miles isn’t enough. That’s the case for at least three people out on the trail this year.
Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley biked the Yukon Quest trail from Fairbanks to Whitehorse last year and holds the record time for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the 1,000-mile race that follows the course of the Iditarod.
This year he’s trying to link the two trails for a 2,000-mile trip from Skagway to Whitehorse to Fairbanks to Nome.
Oatley wore a hat from his friend Brent Sass’ Wild and Free kennel Thursday as he packed his bags at his El Dorado Hotel room in Dawson City, the halfway point of the Yukon Quest.
Oatley wants to complete his trip in about 30 days, which means he’ll need to bike an average of more than 60 miles daily. He left Skagway on Jan. 30, stopped in Whitehorse at the Yukon Quest’s Meet the Mushers event and then headed toward Dawson City a few days ahead of the Yukon Quest start.
Sass and the other leading mushers caught Oatley on their final runs between the Pelly Crossing checkpoint and Dawson City. Oatley said he was at the Scroggie Creek dog drop, a remote mountain cabin, when Sass came through.
“He didn’t even see me. I was just standing there watching him and he was so focused on what he was doing and getting out of there fast he didn’t even see me there,” Oatley said.
Oatley ended up exceeding his 60-mile goal on the day before he came to Dawson, riding 98 miles in one long day in order to arrive in Dawson and skip a night of camping at 30 below.
There’s no annual distance sled dog race from Fairbanks to Nome, but Oatley has worked out an itinerary of local trails that will connect him with the Iditarod trail in the Lower Yukon River. (Iditarod officials are scheduled to announce today whether they will move the restart of this year’s race to Fairbanks form Willow due to trail concerns.)
Trying again for 1,000-mile walk
Polish runner Michael Keilbasinski suffered serious frostbite in the 2015 Yukon Arctic Ultra. This year’s he’s back in the Yukon with a more ambitious project: He’s planning to run the entire 1,000-mile trail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Keilbasinski wore a think jacket and a piece of blue tape to protect his nose when he walked into the Pelly Crossing Yukon Quest checkpoint Tuesday pulling a sled with supplies.
Keilbasinski has a GPS tracker page at rundog.pl/live.html. He’s now in one of the most remote sections of trail, between the Quest’s Stepping Stone hospitality stop and the Scroggie Creek dog drop.
Australian/Canadian ultra-runner Bernadette Benson set a course record last year for women runners in the 300-mile version of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra.
This year she planned to return to the area but not to race. She wanted to do a slower-paced run from Whitehorse to as far as she could down the Yukon Quest trail, ideally as far as Fairbanks.
She left Whitehorse before the dog teams and made it more than 200 miles to the McCabe Creek dog drop before deciding to give up on the goal of the 1,000-mile run.
Running ahead of the Quest trailbreakers meant for slow progress post-holing in the snow, and Benson had to carry more gear than she did last year because in the ultra-marathon she used aid stations.
“I decided I don’t want that much suffering. I did so many things that are just suffer-fests,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be another one of those.”
Benson ended up volunteering for the Yukon Quest and traveling with the race to Dawson. As of Thursday she was in Dawson City planning a shorter trail run from that city.
Staff writer Sam Friedman is covering the Yukon Quest from Whitehorse to Yukon. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMquest.