Dawson City was once the thriving mecca of the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the last century. Today it’s a funky little tourist town known mostly for having a bar that serves the “sour toe cocktail,” a glass of whiskey with an actual frostbitten human toe in it instead of an ice cube. Only a fraction of the Dawson population sticks around through the subzero winter, when it is so cold outside that your eyelashes freeze together. But once a year a cold-weather circus arrives, when Dawson City becomes the halfway point for the world’s toughest dogsledding race.
For the past 31 years the month of February marks the beginning of the Yukon Quest, or “the Quest” as locals like to call it, a 1,000-mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Canada. The race can attract up to 50 professional sled-dog teams, who journey through the subarctic North American wilderness along a historic route once used by prospectors and supply carriers known as the “Klondike Highway.”
The Yukon Quest is like the scrappy cousin to the Iditarod, Alaska’s other 1,000-mile 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 sponsors like Chrysler, ExxonMobil and Wells Fargo. The start of the Quest, which is held in either Fairbanks or Whitehorse in alternating years, is a quainter affair, with volunteers and fans lining the streets alongside banners for local sponsors like Alaskan Brewing Company and the Whitehorse Daily Star. First prize in 2014 was around $20,000, half that of the Iditarod winner’s take and barely enough to cover the high costs of running the race itself.
But the Quest’s is considered the tougher route. And while the Iditarod is held every 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 regular 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 was like most folks from “the lower 48” and had only ever heard of the Iditarod. Now he competes in the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod and sled-dog races all over the world. But his favorite is the Quest. He calls it his “sacred journey.”
Few mushers race the Yukon Quest just to win. 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 -58°F and winds can be up to 50 miles an hour.
The brutality of the trail is matched only by its beauty, as the route passes across frozen rivers and beneath shimmering icicle-laden tree branches of the Yukon’s boreal forest, with snowy mountains looming in the distance. It’s a remote landscape that few people other than dog mushers ever get to see. It is often too cold to travel even by snowmobile. The fuel will freeze.
By the time Brent Sass arrives first into Dawson around 11 p.m., a crowd has been waiting inside a nearby cabin for a few hours already. With the temperature outside at -22°F, they huddle around a computer screen, following the 2014 contestants using GPS trackers. Once Sass looks close to the checkpoint, everyone rushes outdoors to wait in the blistering cold.
Suddenly, a team of 14 big, beautiful black and brown sled dogs comes barreling down the trail, a virtual avalanche of legs and paws covered in bright neon booties. “Woooah,” Sass calls out in a calm, understated tone, commanding his team to stop. Once the dogs’ legs finally stop moving you can see steam rising into the freezing-cold air from their hot torsos. Sass turns off his headlamp and his face, now illuminated by television cameras and flashes, is noticeably covered in frost, with icicles hanging off his mustache.
Sass, a tall, jolly 35-year-old, originally moved to Alaska from Minnesota for college; now he runs the Wild and Free Mushing Kennel in Eureka, Alaska. He has been a Yukon Quest front-runner for years but has yet to win the race. He is still a fan favorite, known for his sportsmanship in other years’ races, rescuing competitors’ dog teams multiple times. (Any outside assistance will disqualify you from the Yukon Quest, but mushers can help other mushers.) This year Sass’s strategy was to avoid these heroic time delays the easy way: by staying ahead of the pack.
“Am I still the first one in?” he asks the local press. After receiving the all-clear from vets and race officials, Sass sets 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 about a half a mile along the river, with a small area for each dog team up a path nestled in the snow- covered trees where RVs would normally set up to camp in the summer. The dogs rest inside a large open tent lined with straw; in between snoozing the handlers are on call to massage their paws with a pink balm, and veterinarians look the dogs over.
A few human-friendly Arctic Oven tents, each with a wood-burning stove, are pitched nearby.
Sass’s dog team is down for the night by the time Allen Moore’s team arrives in Dawson a few hours later. 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 is originally from Arkansas, where he was a taxidermist and carpenter before moving to Alaska to race years ago. At the checkpoint his dogs are still bouncing with residual energy, barking and howling into the night. Moore’s dogs are smaller than Sass’s, with shorter legs that make them somewhat slower but less susceptible to the injuries larger dogs often suffer.
It is 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 Quest. The term “sled dog” can refer to any of a half-dozen breeds that once pulled a sled in cold weather as part of a team, such as Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes. Alaskan huskies are today’s racing dogs of choice and are actually mutts, 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 a very important part of northern 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 the world of competitive sled-dog racing began.
For the Yukon Quest dog mushers, their dogs are the ultimate companions; keeping them alive out in the wilderness and leading them along the isolated, dangerous terrain of the trail. They dedicate their lives to caring for their dogs, day in and day out. It’s this intense bond that’s at the root of it all, and is also the most interesting part of the sport.
Still, high drama is no stranger to the Quest. At the end of the 2014 race, only 11 out of the 18 teams competing actually make it to the finish line. One dog dies at Eagle Summit, the toughest part of the trail, which 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 eventually rescued by a helicopter on the summit. In 2011, a four-time champion 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 remain head to head. Then outside of Braeburn, a truck-stop checkpoint deep in the heart of the Yukon, about a hundred miles from the finish line in Whitehorse, Sass suffers a concussion after falling off his sled and has to be airlifted out. It’s a dramatic and disappointing end to what had been, up to that point, “the race of my life” for Sass. Moore goes on to win with a time of 8 days, 14 hours and 21 minutes. Neff comes in second at 8 days, 23 hours and 7 minutes.
“I think it’s always for the adventure,” says Moore. “While we’re doing it, we sometimes wonder why. But man, as soon as we get off of it, we forget and can’t wait to do it again.”