1,000 miles of the Yukon
Yukon Quest 2011 - A team is brought to the starting line. (Lester Picker / February 5, 2011)
It's not the mushers in the world's toughest dog sled race that generate this palpable excitement. What the hundreds of tourists have come to see are the dogs — the real workhorses and unsung heroes of the mushing teams. And right now, the din from their barking and baying is almost deafening as they stand on their hind legs, straining to move the tethered sleds. The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest sled dog race is about to start, and these well-toned canine athletes are eager to run.
The Quest, as it is known by mushers worldwide, is widely considered even tougher than its famed rival, the Iditarod. Each year the starting gate alternates between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and Fairbanks, Alaska. The rules are simple. You must negotiate a prescribed route between the two cities. You may start with as many as 12 dogs and must finish with at least five. There are mandatory rest stops where every dog is checked by U.S. and Canadian veterinarians, who donate their time.
The race is a closely followed event for Canadians and Alaskans. Teams train year-round, creating an exceptionally strong bond between dog and musher. The dogs obviously are well-fed, at great cost to the younger mushers, which is why the sponsorships that colorfully decorate their sleds are so highly sought.
The 11-day race, give or take a day or two depending on trail conditions, will take the mushers through snow and ice, across four jagged mountain ranges and frozen lakes, through boreal forests and along steep mountain precipices. Temperatures may drop to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds may exceed gale force. Dogs may be left behind with handlers at one of 10 checkpoints because of cuts, bruises or illness, in which case veterinary treatment is administered. By the time the winning teams cross the finish line, they are mentally and physically exhausted. In fact, as many as 40 percent of the teams drop out.
For tourists eager to experience the real north in winter, the Quest focuses on two Yukon towns; Whitehorse and Dawson City, the famed epicenter of the Klondike gold rush.
For Whitehorse residents, the Quest is the winter's highlight event, a celebration not only of dog sled racing but every bit as much a tribute to the dog sled itself, which is one of the two iconic means of transport that Canadians used — and still use — to explore their immense territories. (The other is the canoe.) The town is decorated with signs and banners; hotels welcome race guests; and parties and banquets abound.
Whitehorse is a charming, clean, small city, with enough lodging, restaurants, museums and other diversions, such as sled-dog excursions, to satisfy most families. The Yukon Territory has about 30,000 residents, 24,000 of them in Whitehorse — so one can find supplies and big-box stores.
I have been to Yukon many times, in all seasons, but winter is my favorite. The sidewalks in Whitehorse are kept reasonably free of snow, the air is crisp and dry, and people tend to lounge just a bit longer in the many cafes that dot the town. But on race day excitement builds throughout the early morning.
News crews from as far away as Japan and Australia watch the large electronic race clock count down to the start. Mushers hitch their teams to the central sled line and lead their teams toward the starting line. One by one the mushers move down their line of dogs, hugging them, whispering to them.
The first musher to start stands hard on the brakes of the sled, as the dogs strain and pull at their leads. They yelp and bray incessantly, jumping wildly into the air. Handlers try to keep the dogs from tangling up their lines. Finally, the announcer begins the 10-second countdown, and with the roar of the crowd the first musher is off. With a rousing ovation every two minutes another team races down the line and descends out of sight onto the frozen Yukon River, where they will initially follow its famed course all the way to Dawson City.
Having already briefly stopped at several checkpoints over the first few days, the first mandatory, 36-hour layover for all teams is in Dawson City, Yukon. Tourists get a chance to mingle with the resting mushers and dogs. But most tourists instead busily occupy themselves with all that tiny Dawson City (population 1,200) has to offer.
Here the sidewalks are all wood and the streets unpaved. With historic buildings all over the town, including a Jack London cabin and poet Robert Service's house, Dawson is much as it was when the gold rush ended, as if in a time warp.
The mushers' respite is all too brief, though. When they leave Dawson, the next place tourists will be able to see them is in Fairbanks, some 600 lonely, frozen miles away.
If you go
The 2012 race start: Feb. 4 in Fairbanks, reaching Dawson City about seven days later and Whitehorse three days after that. For more information on the Quest: yukonquest.com
Lodging: My favorite Whitehorse hotel is the Westmark (867-393-9700, westmarkhotels.com/whitehorsehotel.php, $125-$170). In Dawson I would suggest the old-timey Downtown Hotel (867-993-5346, downtownhotel.ca $95-$125).
Eating: Whitehorse has a wide range of excellent restaurants. Try Antoinette's for upscale funky, or Klondike Rib and Salmon for traditional Yukon dishes such as bison, musk ox and great fish. In Dawson try Klondike Kate's or The Drunken Goat Taverna.