Dawson City was the thriving mecca of the Klondike gold rush 125 years ago. Today it’s a small tourist town with a bar that serves the ‘sour toe cocktail’, chilled with frozen frostbitten human toe (there’s a £320/€430 fine for swallowing it). Only part of the Dawson population sticks around through the sub-zero winter, when it is so cold outside that your eyelashes freeze together. The only other attraction in Dawson happens once a year, when it becomes the halfway point for one of the world’s toughest winter events.
For the past 31 years the month of February marks the beginning of the Yukon Quest, or the Quest, as locals call it, a 1,000-mile dog sled race between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Canada. The race attracts up to 50 sled dog teams, who journey through the subarctic North American wilderness along what was once the Klondike Highway, a route on which sled dogs used to deliver mail during the gold rush.
The Yukon Quest is like the scrappy cousin to the Iditarod, another 1,000-mile dog race known as Alaska’s Super Bowl. The start of the Iditarod is a big spectator event held in the city of Anchorage, flanked by banners emblazoned with the logos of big-name sponsors like Chrysler, ExxonMobil and Wells Fargo.
The start of the annual Quest, which alternates between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, is a smaller affair, where volunteers and fans line the streets next to banners for local businesses like the Whitehorse Daily Star newspaper and the Alaskan Brewing Company. The first prize for winning the Quest in 2014 was about £15,000/€20,000, which is half that of the Iditarod prize money and barely enough to cover the costs of running the race.
The Quest is considered the tougher of the races, with a much more challenging route. And while the Iditarod is held in spring, the Quest takes place during the coldest time of year, with fewer checkpoints and less rest for mushers. “It’s more of an old-school dog mushing style,” says Hugh Neff, a 47-year-old Quest musher who won the race in 2012.
“You have to be on your own, you have to be self-sufficient… it’s the real deal.” Before moving to Alaska from Chicago 20 years ago, Neff had only heard of the Iditarod. Now he competes in the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod and other races all over the world, but his favourite is the Quest. He calls it his “sacred journey”.
Few mushers race the Yukon Quest just to win the event. For most, it’s the ultimate test of survival in some of the harshest wilderness known to man. Temperatures during the race reach as low as -50°C and winds howl up to 80kph.
The brutality of the trail is matched only by its beauty, with the route passing across frozen rivers and beneath shimmering icicle-laden tree branches of the Yukon territory’s boreal forest with snowy mountains in the distance. Few people ever get to see the scenery of these remote trails, aside from dog mushers. It is often even too cold to travel by snowmobile because the fuel will freeze.
By the time Brent Sass arrived in Dawson at around 11pm, a crowd had been waiting inside a nearby cabin for a few hours. With the temperature outside around -30°C, they were huddled around a computer screen, following GPS signals from Quest mushers. Once Sass looked close to the checkpoint, everyone rushed outdoors to wait in the blistering cold.
A team of 14 black and brown sled dogs came barrelling down the trail in an avalanche of legs and paws. “Woooah,” Sass called out to his team in a calm low tone, commanding them to stop. Once the dogs’ legs finally stopped moving you could see steam rising into the freezing cold air from their hot torsos. Then he turned his headlamp off and you could see his face, covered in frost, with icicles hanging off his moustache.
Sass, a tall, jolly 35-year-old, moved to Alaska from Minnesota to attend college and stayed. He runs the Wild and Free Mushing Kennel in Eureka. He has been a Yukon Quest frontrunner for years, but has yet to win the race. He is still a fan favourite, respected for willingness to help other mushers in moments of distress. (Receiving outside assistance automatically results in disqualification from the Yukon Quest, but mushers can help other mushers.) This time Sass’s strategy was to avoid any heroic time delays by staying ahead of everyone else.
“Am I still the first one in?” he asked local journalists. After receiving the all-clear from vets and race officials, musher and dogs set off to a campsite about a mile away across the frozen Yukon River, where all teams are required to rest for 36 hours.
The campsite runs along the river with a little section for each dog team up a path nestled in the snow-covered trees, where motorhomes set up camp in the summer. The dogs rest inside a long tent lined with straw. In between snoozing, the dog handlers are on call to massage paws with a pink balm, and each of the dogs receives a check-up from a vet. There are also one or two human-friendly Arctic Oven tents with wood-burning stoves.
Sass’s dog team was peacefully asleep a few hours later, when Allen Moore’s team came into Dawson. A 57-year-old veteran musher, Moore runs SP Kennels with his wife Aliy Zirkle, also a top musher and this year’s Iditarod runner-up. Moore moved to Alaska from Arkansas, where he was a taxidermist and carpenter, more than 20 years ago.
His dogs were still bouncing with energy at the checkpoint, barking and howling loudly. Bred to be smaller than Sass’s, their shorter legs might make them slower, but they’re less susceptible to the injuries larger dogs often suffer. It’s common to hear dog mushers refer to themselves as “the weakest link” in their team. Unlike humans, sled dogs are in their natural element in races like the Yukon Quest, and their ideal temperature is in the region of -30°C.
The term sled dog refers to any of the types of dog originally bred to pull a sled in cold weather as part of a team, such as Siberian Huskies, Malamutes or Alaskan Huskies. The Alaskan Huskies are a type of mixed breed mutt and today’s racing dogs of choice. They are bred over time for speed and endurance, as opposed to the larger, slower, stronger utilitarian sled dogs of the past.
Dog mushing has a long history and is an important part of region’s culture. North American native communities used sled dogs before Europeans occupied the region. More than 3,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer communities were using dogs to pull sleds in the Arctic Circle. But it was during the Gold Rush era that dogs were bred for size and strength in order to haul supplies and pull sleds for transportation. Once highways were built in the 1940s and ’50s and snow-machines became widespread in the 1960s, sled dogs were not necessary for survival. Mushing became recreational, and competitive sled dog racing began.
Yukon Quest mushers rely on their dogs to keep them going in the wilderness and lead them along the isolated, dangerous terrain of the trail. They dedicate their life to caring for their dogs, day in and day out. The intense bond that forms between the musher and his dogs is at the root of the sport, and the most interesting element.
There is always high drama on the Quest. At the end of the 2014 race, only 11 out of 18 competing teams made it to the finish line. One dog died at Eagle Summit, the toughest part of the trail that has been the stage for a lot of the race’s drama over the years. In 2006, six mushers and their dog teams were lost and had to be rescued by a helicopter.
In 2011, a four-time champion here almost died of hypothermia after falling into a frozen ice pool before being rescued by another musher. For hundreds of miles after Dawson City, Moore and Sass were neck and neck. Then, outside Braeburn, a truck stop checkpoint deep in the heart of the Yukon territory 100 miles from the finish line in Whitehorse, Sass suffered concussion after falling off his sled and had to be airlifted out. It was a dramatic and disappointing end to what had been, up to that point, “the race of my life”, said Sass. Moore went on to win with a time of eight days, 14 hours and 21 minutes.
Hugh Neff came in second, finishing after eight days, 23 hours and seven minutes. “I think it’s always for the adventure,” said Moore. “While we’re doing it, we sometimes wonder why. But as soon as we finish, we forget about all the hardships and can’t wait to do it again.”This year’s race starts on February 7 in Whitehorse