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A Passion for Canines, Cold Winds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 1 a.m. and the thermometer shows 24 below zero in the subarctic wilderness. Overhead, furious northern lights snake across 1,000 miles of sky, great translucent belts and shivers of neon green, tinged in pink--unearthly luminescence known only to those at extremes of latitude. And beyond, colossal stars glint in shades of ruby and topaz and diamond. Crystalline snow underfoot catches the colors: flickers on an empty, quiet, cold, vast shadow land.

For purposes of celebrating the Far North, the night is sublimely perfect, God-given, oh glory.

Something moves.

From out of a grove of frozen spruce, distant dogs come dancin’. Silently puffing their own little vapor trails, they materialize in a bobbing double-line, black dogs and yellow and white and brown and spotted dogs, floppy-eared and stand-up-eared dogs, shaggy and sleek dogs. They shoulder forward at a lope, not driven by the ponderously clothed human riding the sled behind them so much as driven from within. This is what they were born to do, what they plead to do, this is all they do and what they sometimes die doing.

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The 1,060-mile Yukon Quest International sled dog race has begun.

Spread out in the winter wilderness, three women, 25 men and 375 dogs advance at nine or so miles an hour over some of North America’s loneliest and most dramatic landscapes, roughly tracing the route of the Klondike gold rush of 99 years ago.

The best among the teams will be out here 12 days and several odd hours. Others will take almost a week longer. Many will tire and quit, some will succumb to disaster and never see the interior of Alaska, where the Quest will finish on the frozen Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.

Photos of dog mushing often show throngs of people at checkpoints and finish lines bathed in bright lights. But these are illusory. Almost all the pursuit occurs alone, musher and dogs, in the darkness of 17-hour nights, traversing buckled ice crusts of rivers, through valleys of spindly trees, over windblown summits. Faces caked in ice, their companions are wild nature and, for the mushers anyway, the perpetual twirl of despair and euphoria in the mind. And the shhhhhhish of the sled over snow, and sometimes the howl of a wolf and the other strange voices that speak to the exhausted. And always the cold, both terrible and exhilarating.

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Few experiences make one feel so alive and so insignificant at the same time. Over the trail, dog and musher live and struggle entirely in the present. There is no thought of yesterday, only faint awareness of tomorrow. The universe is a billion miles big over their heads, but life exists at a range of only 60 feet on the ground--the distance between lead dog and musher, the distance a battery-powered headlamp penetrates into the cobalt blue of night.

*

They are like crazy people. All the time do they go on, and on. Why do they go on? I do not know. Only do they go on. What are they after? I do not know . . . But I ask questions no more. I, too, go on and on, because I am strong on the trail.

--Jack London

*

The Yukon Quest is one of two great sled dog endurance contests in the world, running between Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory and Fairbanks in the interior of Alaska. The other is the Iditarod, from Anchorage to Nome. The Quest is run first, followed by the Iditarod, which began last Saturday.

There are many similarities, and a finisher’s patch on a parka from either race will gain one a mountain of respect anywhere in the Far North. But to those who run it, the Quest is the tougher and purer of the two: a celebration of the values of the Far North without the high-pressure commercialism of its sister race. The summits are higher on the Quest, the temperatures colder, the distances between checkpoints farther, the loads in the sleds heavier, the isolation greater.

Yes, the Quest is a race, but it is not just a race. It is the wildest of itches. It is a test of character against hardship, an annual rendezvous of fur trappers and school teachers and fishermen and adventurers, a camping trip, an escape, and most of all, the solemnization of humankind’s old bond with dogs. It is a paradox, where a man who traps and kills animals will curl in the snow to tenderly massage the sore muscles of his dog rather than tend to his own needs. Where women compete against men without disadvantage. Where it is expected that mushers will do anything to gain distance--anything except not help each other in a jam.

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“The money you win, that is something you spend and is gone,” says Joe May, a former Quest racer and Iditarod champion. He is a judge on the Quest trail and one of the great spokesmen of sled dog racing.

“Really, it’s what you do out here--how you handle yourself--that is what you take home and keep. The worse it is, the better you can be.”

*

It happens like this:

A musher stirs and 14 chained dogs spring into frenzy. The dogs’ barks are desperate and their front paws claw the air as they stretch their tethers, fearing they might be left behind. One by squirming one they are fit into webbed harnesses and led to their place on the gangline--lead dogs first, swing dogs behind them, team dogs next and last the wheel dogs just in front of the sled. Their barks transform into mournful, wolf like howls, the ancient cry of the impending hunt.

The tailing end of the harness is clipped to a tugline and, two by two, collars are snapped to necklines to keep everyone pointed forward and untangled.

These dogs are refined mongrels: part Siberian husky and a mix of everything else from foxhounds to whippets, Irish setters and malamutes. They are called Alaskan huskies, and every musher has a theory of what makes a perfect sled dog. The best are smallish, just higher than your knee, weighing 40 to 50 pounds, with thick legs and skinny rib cages, some with blue eyes and some with brown and a few with one eye of each color. Their pedigrees are known for many generations.

All Alaskan huskies share one characteristic: A passion to run. More than a passion, a mania. To hold back a fresh team of 14 dogs can require eight or nine strong people or a two-pronged steel hook stomped into the hard-pack snow. Once moving, they are unstoppable for miles.

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Dogs wear cloth booties against the abrasion of the snow, and sometimes fleece jackets wrapped under tender bellies. A musher may wear something like this: Arctic insulated boots, two pairs of socks, long underwear, fleece pants and shirt, a fleece sweater, thickly insulated bib overalls with nylon wind cover, an eight-pound parka with a fur ruff, a ski mask over the face, a fur hat made of beaver, a synthetic gaiter across the neck, polypropylene glove liners, 18-inch fur-and-moosehide mittens and a headlamp strapped above the eyes with batteries stowed down next to the body, where they will not freeze.

On the trail, intervals of time are not measured in ordinary days.

Dogs run and rest in roughly equal measure. Like money in a bank, you take out of dogs what you put in.

Under ideal conditions, a musher may travel two hours. Then the dogs are given a snack, perhaps a chunk of frozen whitefish the size of a baseball. Two more hours on the run. Then the dogs are rested for four hours.

But there is little rest for the musher. First there are another 14 snacks to hand out. Booties are stripped from 56 feet. Each dog is praised. Cora, and Sox and Harley and Leon, Spot, Tails, Butch, Janice and Klondike and the others get stroked. The musher cooks a broth over an aluminum alcohol stove to keep the dogs hydrated. Then each dog foot is inspected. Tender spots are rubbed with balm. Sore wrists are massaged with penetrating salve and wrapped in neoprene. In a tub of boiling water, frozen dog food is thawed and ladled into 14 pans. Then maybe more broth.

Somewhere in the process, mushers may warm a plastic bag of people food in the dog broth.

The musher’s great fear is oversleeping. To crawl into a puffy sleeping bag is to risk comfort and the inevitable deep, satisfying sleep--while other mushers are on the move. So if they can claim an hour or two out of the four for themselves, they sometimes lie down on their sleds in trail clothes and shiver and doze uncomfortably. The best mushers are known for their small sleeping bags and their large alarm clocks.

Perhaps three hours into the rest, the musher rises. Another four-gallon batch of broth and dog food to cook, 56 booties to refit, wrists to unwrap, the sled to pack.

The impatient howling of the team rises.

“OK guys, let’s go!”

Mushers do not say “mush” when they lean down and yank the hook out of the snow.

At that instant, the howls cease--so abruptly as to be startling. And the dogs shoulder forward. Wind hits exposed skin, the inside of noses harden with frost, ice sheets on faces and stinging eyes blink to see the wooden stakes marking the trail ahead.

So the cycle goes, around the clock, unceasing.

*

And who are these mushers?

Kathy Swenson lists her occupation as mother and weaned a baby before she started this thousand-miler. A 40-year-old native of Florida who lives in Two Rivers, Alaska, her name and easy smile are famous in the small circle of dog drivers. Like most mushers, she lives on a shoestring, raising four kids and 40 dogs. She has run the Iditarod three times. This is her fifth Quest. She is large and strong and hungry to be the first woman to win it.

Her pint-sized lead dog is named Psycho, with one blue and one brown eye and the knack of flashing her incisors and smiling if you ask. So close is she to this dog that when Swenson gave birth to a daughter eight months ago, Psycho went through a false pregnancy.

Less than 100 miles into the race, Swenson’s sled whipsaws into a tree and she pops her knee, which swells to the size of a melon. One of her strongest dogs, Blondie, is not running properly and is dropped at the first mandatory checkpoint. Mushing rules allow dogs to be removed from the team and turned over to veterinarians or handlers. But none can be added.

Bad signs for Swenson, but she pushes on.

Jim Hendrick, a 46-year-old whitewater guide from Alaska’s Denali National Park, is a standout in a field of outlandish characters. A swaggering adventurer and storyteller, he arrives at the first checkpoint way behind the leaders, discouraged and threatening to quit. He realizes he does not have the team to win. What he says as he waters his dogs is unprintable, but what he means is that he cannot imagine running at the back of the pack for another 1,000 miles.

“Go have some food,” says race judge Joe May. “And, besides, it’s only 970 miles.”

Hendrick pushes on, now not to win but to beat the musher just ahead of him.

Darren Rorabaugh, 36, a carpenter and guide from Fairbanks, is as gentle as others in the race are hard. One of his dogs, a lanky bruiser named Davey, broke loose before the race and is running wild in the Yukon. Rorabaugh is heartsick. He forges on with a team of 13, determined to finish.

Chris Pemberton, 43, is on his honeymoon from Two Rivers, Alaska. His wife is driving his dog truck and will meet him at the occasional spot where the trail intersects a road. But she is taken with a flu that is sweeping through the race. She is seen on her hands and knees throwing up in the below-zero snow while awaiting his arrival at a checkpoint. He offers what comfort he can and pushes ahead.

Larry Carroll, 36, is a construction worker from Willow, Alaska, a friendly man with the physique of a bear. He also struggles with the flu. And after two days of hanging on to his sled in a feverish delirium, he arrives at a checkpoint with a broad smile.

“One hundred percent better!” he announces.

He grabs an ax to chop frozen dog food into pieces and promptly sinks the blade into the bone of his knee. A veterinarian sews the inner muscle with one row of stitches and the skin with another. Carroll mushes on.

Ingrabritt Scholven, a 37-year-old software engineer from Cologne, Germany, saved her money and spent 18 months in Alaska preparing for this challenge.

She tries to put the trail into words:

“The Athabascan natives here say the North is where you have room to dream. Here is where the mind can walk. You stop thinking about people and hassles. All that goes away when you are standing on the runners. You are taken with calm. The dogs do the same, I think. It is like when you wake up and a dream stays with you.”

“My mood? In English the word might be ‘faith.’ You find things inside yourself to cheer you up and keep faith. Anything to get your mind off being exhausted. You never allow yourself to say the negative. If you get low, maybe you change a piece of clothing to make yourself feel different. Or you stop and make tea, which is a very intense physical pleasure on the trail. . . .

She speaks of travail and joy, but never fear.

“No I am not afraid. I would be more afraid in the city. In wilderness, I can deal with objective dangers. I am a living being and the other animals are living beings. There is a balance. There are no ghosts. In the city, you can stand there and a stranger can shoot you. There is no balance. You cannot deal with that.”

Less than 300 miles into the race, Scholven’s dogs weaken. She is among nine teams that will scratch. One other will be ordered to stop and another disqualified for a rules infractions.

PELLY CROSSING, Yukon

The Quest trail is laid down and staked by Canadian Army Rangers riding snowmobiles days ahead of the mushers.

There are long, lumpy-flat stretches over frozen rivers, bouncy switchbacks through forests of brittle aspen and snow-frosted spruce, steep icy climbs over summits where dogs and mushers must claw their way forward, sometimes against roaring winds. And slippery, dangerous descents. Only 15 times in 1,060 miles does the race intersect even a remote road.

Although the landscape is frozen, there is life in the ice. Rivers open unexpectedly into sudden death traps, and pent-up side streams overflow on top of the trail and must be forded. Mushers have been known to strip at 30-below and hurry across a pond of “overflow” wearing only socks so they may have dry clothes on the other side.

But the true excess of the Quest is its weather, measured on a scale unlike the norm. Ten degrees above zero is considered warm, 20-above brutally hot. Dogs, particularly black dogs, are miserable and can quickly overheat. Mushers modify their schedules to rest as much as possible when the sun is out.

Ideal conditions are from about zero to 20 below, when the dogs run happiest and mushers can perform their chores without suffering. At 40 below, misery sets in. Dry air parches dog throats, frostbite nips exposed skin, the musher’s hands turn to clubs, wind finds its way up sleeves and down the backs of parkas. And the colder it gets the more one is exposed to it, because everything takes longer to accomplish.

In 1993, well-liked Canadian musher Bruce Johnson and his team broke through thin lake ice during a practice run, and all drowned. During the race itself, no mushers have perished but close calls are not unknown.

In 1986, 13 mushers were caught in a 40-below blizzard. Visibility was reduced to inches and the trail was completely blown away. There was no food left to sustain the dogs so stopping was not possible. Two pairs of lead dogs, used in rotation, were trusted to bring the caravan through mounting snowdrifts to the next checkpoint. Five teams scratched on the spot.

DAWSON CITY, Yukon

Mushers are required to take a 36-hour rest at this halfway mark. Tents of plastic sheeting are erected for the dogs in a city campground. They are given beds of straw atop the snow. The mushers are taken in by local families. And saloon doors bang all night in this old Klondike city because there are traditions as well as hardships to uphold.

Somewhere along the trail, a word of encouragement became a promise. If Kathy Swenson’s knee gets her to Dawson, I will get the first dance.

So tonight, in clumsy trail boots, the two of us waltz to a jukebox on the bank of the Yukon River, while tequila shooters come, and go, three at a time. Gold miners and trappers and government clerks travel a hundred miles to be part of the scene. One bar called “The Pit” is divided by a hallway. Some of the more dedicated revelers have drinks working in both halves. Outside, two shirtless men offer local color with a fistfight in the snow.

“You never mushed dogs?” asks Larry “Cowboy” Smith, a river man and dog driver of legendary stature in the North. “Well I got a pup that’s never been in harness. You can learn together.”

The knowledgeable say this: If Smith puts more than six dogs in the fresh team, he is out to terrorize you. More dogs means going faster and with less control.

He harnesses 10, including the hysterical puppy and a giant lead dog named Sparky. You pull the snow hook and the dogs fling sled and me down the frozen Yukon River. The puppy falls into a ball of flying feet and fur and then regains its footing and pulls even harder. Perhaps a natural.

Just as mushers say, you grasp the handlebar and concentrate on the team, dog by dog. Who is pulling? Who is loafing? You watch gaits and rumps. Happy dogs hold their tails up or out; troubled dogs tuck them away. You watch ears, for no reason except the comic flopping of these hairy windshield wipers. You talk to the dogs and to yourself. “Haw,” turns them left, “Gee” aims them right. Usually. The dogs grow beards of ice and never seem to tire. A rind of ice builds on top of my beard and I ask myself: When it comes time to tell this story, will it say enough, really, to note that this race covers the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle?

As the sled glides over fresh snow, and the dogs bound, and the river canyon opens before you, and cake-frosted thickets of spruce glow in the long light of afternoon, it is possible for a tranquil instant to grasp why it is that people will live alone in tiny cabins apart from what we call civilization, without water or electricity, and spend what they earn on dog food.

Smith has not done you in, and you celebrate with a tumbler of whiskey. But it is rotten and you send it back. A rookie move. Nothing wrong in the glass. The waitress points to your hand. The lingering scent from handling trail dog reeks like ammonia.

*

“Dead dog.”

Word passes gloomily through the race.

Chris Pemberton was approaching Dawson at 15 below in new snow when his 5-year-old dog named Janice collapsed without warning. He tries resuscitation.

Then he lifts the limp body into the bag of his sled. At the checkpoint, he holds his bride’s hand and tears drip down his cheeks.

For 500 miles, you have been assisting the voluntary 16-person veterinary crew along the race. You have watched the attention Pemberton and vets lavish on his dogs: each animal given a physical at each of the checkpoints. Chief veterinarian Wendy Royle says Pemberton’s team care was beyond question and better than the norm. Hearts break with his. Pemberton quits the race.

Dog mushing has, in various degrees, become a controversy. As it has risen in public awareness, it has become a target for some in the animal rights movement. They call it cruel to run dogs this hard and long for sport. They have pressured sponsors to withdraw support, and defined a vast divide between people who love dogs one way and those who love them another.

There is little doubt that complaints have resulted in greater attention to the care of dogs before and during races. There is also no dispute that on the fringes of the sport are people with medieval attitudes about animals.

And over the years, despite the efforts of mushers and veterinarians, dogs sometimes die. In one race three were lost; in others none.

But there is also no arguing with this: More lonely, abandoned and mistreated dogs will be put down in Alaskan animal shelters in an average week than will ever perish on the trail. And these dogs will never know the devotion of a musher, the companionship of the pack or the joy of purpose.

Is the Quest demanding and dangerous? Yes.

What do the dogs say? Listen to their howls and watch them run.

*

Race update: John Schandelmeier, a wiry 44-year-old fur trapper from a roadless area near Paxton, Alaska, has arrived first in Dawson in just under five days. For this, he is awarded 4 ounces of jewelry-quality gold nuggets. He has won the Quest twice before and his performance is not surprising.

But there is disbelief when Rick Mackey, 43, a professional musher and Iditarod champion, arrives 4 1/2 hours behind and in fifth place. This is Mackey’s 20th 1,000-mile race and his team appears to be getting stronger. He should be at the front of the pack.

Mackey, whose father also won the Iditarod, is furious with himself for a beginner’s mistake. He fell asleep 50 miles up the trail. “I dunno,” he says glumly. “At this point, maybe it’s not fatal.”

Darren Rorabaugh arrives in 12th place. He learns that his missing dog, Davey, has been caught back at the starting line and is fine. At least now, Rorabaugh can be good and mad at him.

EAGLE, Alaska

By now, the Quest has consumed everyone connected to it. This is all they have ever done in their lives, and all they will ever do. There is no before or after.

In last year’s race, an exhausted musher could not resist when he passed an old lodge on the trail. He stopped and got himself a room with a bed, shower and fireplace, to hell with winning. Later, a fellow musher found him sprawled unconscious in the snow. He had hallucinated the lodge.

Distance is only one challenge in the Quest. Time is the other. Time measured in dreamlike agonies as the time without sleep.

“People asked me before the race what I dreaded. I couldn’t think of anything,” says John Schandelmeier. “Now I remember. It’s being tired like this. . . . “

A musher looks at his watch. He sees the big hand. Then he looks for the little hand. But he has forgotten what the big hand said. With helpless anguish on his face, he holds his watch before a stranger and asks, “Can you tell me the time?”

Mushers tie themselves to their sleds and describe snoozing not in terms of hours but miles, as in “I think I got about 20 miles of sleep.”

Perpetual motion and relentless cold wears on everyone else trying to keep pace with the Quest. The hollow-eyed faces of race officials and vets and journalists at checkpoints resemble a leper colony.

You change socks. First your left foot. Then you replace your boot. You move to the other foot. But you’ve lost the second sock. How could this happen? You have not moved. Where is the double-damned thing? You search and then feel the fury of frustration rising. As your foot cocks, ready to kick your duffel bag, you look. The sock is on your foot.

“After two or three nights of total sleep deprivation, ‘microsleeps’ of a few seconds duration introduce into wakefulness,” explains Peter J. Hauri, of the Mayo Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center. In a paper prepared for mushers, he says that after 10 days, “micro-sleeps are so entwined with wakefulness that it becomes almost impossible to determine whether a person is actually awake or asleep, even if he/she performs tasks usually associated with wakefulness.”

An interview from your notebook:

Breezy and 25-below. Musher Jerry Louden lumbers through 50 yards of shin-deep snow. His boots seem to weigh 50 pounds.

“Did you want me?” he asks.

No.

“OK.”

*

Race update: More grief. Kathy Swenson arrives at the checkpoint at the village of Eagle in far eastern Alaska and whispers to race officials: “I have a problem.”

Her 8-year-old dog Sox, one of the heavy pullers in the middle of the gangline and a veteran of earlier Quests and the Iditarod, has died on the trail. Like Pemberton’s misfortune, it was instantaneous. Sox was running and then collapsed. By the time Swenson reached him, the dog was not breathing.

She rests the remaining team and then pushes on. But a few miles out of town, Swenson stops. She and her dogs look at each other awhile. As if by agreement, they turn around and Swenson scratches. In straw spread over the snow, she lays down with her leaders.

Swenson is too tough to think of crying. The same cannot be said of everyone else.

“There were things I want to tell you. . . ,” she begins. She cannot bring herself to continue.

BIEDERMAN’S CABIN

On the Yukon River, Alaska

To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read. The pages turn as the wind blows. . . . It is a shadow language.

--Alaskan poet John Haines

*

Ninety years ago, Biederman’s Cabin was a mail stop on the dog-mushing routes of the Klondike. It is 65 miles from the nearest village or road, accessible by sled or ski plane. Now, mushers stop here to rest their dogs and warm themselves over a wood-burning stove, maintained by a former Granada Hills couple, Mark and Lori Richards, who live up a side canyon and raise their three children in the wilderness.

“On a night like tonight,” says race judge and former Iditarod champion Joe May, “with a three-quarters moon shining off the hills and the wolves out prowling in the trees, you can slide back 100 years.

“Can you hear it? Your mind talking to you. This is the old Dawson Trail. And out there, under a spruce tree, you can hear anything you want--music written on the wind. My only sadness is that I’m not 28 and I don’t have it all to live again. There are people I know who want out of their lives. But for me, time is the only sadness.”

In 1986, May completed the Quest in 14 days and ceremoniously burned his snowshoes at the finish line, never to race again.

Now, as mushers pass by the one-time mail cabin, they report trail temperatures of 40-below, the coldest of the race. Those of us non-mushers here are self-conscious for having a warm cabin, never mind that it’s crumbling and lopsided, sinking into the permafrost and nearly buried in snow.

Outside there is a plywood box with a wood stove heated cherry-red. While the mushers make their way here, we climb inside--veterinarian Darren Woodson of Farmington, N.M., homesteader Mark Richards and me. We drench the stove with cold water, luxuriating in clouds of steam.

And when we have heated ourselves deep to the core, we unlatch the door and step naked into the snowy sub-zero night, where the voices speak. They compliment us on our good fortune. The rest of the world knows this as a Wednesday.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska

Rick Mackey, a chain-smoking father of two from the Alaska town of Nenana, has made up the lost time of his oversleeping. He crosses the finish line first, after 12 days, 5 hours and 55 minutes. He is the third person to win both the Quest and the Iditarod and credits his brindled 11-year-old lead dog, Leon, for the $30,000 victory.

“Been promising him for years he could come to the banquet,” says Mackey. So Leon snoozes under the table at the Westmark Hotel ballroom for the post-race celebration.

Frank Turner, 49, a Yukon musher and the only person to start all 14 Quest races, comes in second, an hour and eight minutes later. He brings his team to a snappy halt at the finish line and then runs forward with a flourish to unwrap a mound of butcher paper and reward each dog with a bloody raw beefsteak the size of a catcher’s mitt.

Terry Asbury, 46, of Saranac, Mich., the only musher from the Lower 48, is honored with a surprise $5,000 prize put up by a sponsor. He is an electrical engineer who saved vacation and money for years to try the Quest. He quit halfway, but his spirit and big heart won him admirers.

Ralf Zielinski, 41, an engineer from Geesthacht, Germany, is the only one of four Europeans to finish. He is exultant, recalling the moment when he topped one of the high summits on the trail, “I felt as if I was the only one on Earth.” He practically was, six days behind the leaders and two days behind anyone else. He earns the traditional red lantern as the last musher home.

*

The Quest is hard to let loose of.

At her log home outside town, Kathy Swenson watches her baby daughter learning to walk. “I hear myself say, ‘I’ll never do a big race again,’ ” she says. “I’ve got children to raise. But then a guy says he might be able to line up a sponsor for next year. So, I guess it depends. . . .”

She pauses. Then adds, “How can I give it up? I’ve got all these dogs.”

As for yourself, for days to come you will bolt awake in your sleeping bag at random hours in a sagging cabin next to a wood stove or on the hard floor of a one-room native schoolhouse. Nothing will be stranger than blinking and discovering yourself in a bed with clean sheets, without the song of dogs or the melody of the cold wind.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Yukon Quest

* Started: 1983, 10 years after founding of the Iditarod race, primarily by two Fairbanks men who envisioned a long-distance challenge that emphasized self-sufficiency over commercialism.

* The course: Originally, it was a 1,000-mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. In 1997, extra mileage was added near the finish to bring the total to about 1,060 miles.

* Checkpoints: Mushers must stop at seven checkpoints, where race officials check gear and veterinarians give each dog a physical, up to and including EKGs. Here, mushers load up on supplies sent in advance.

Additionally, there are five other designated “dog drops” on the route where weak or injured dogs may be removed to the care of vets or handlers.

* Rests: At the halfway point, mushers must take a 36-hour rest. Another eight-hour rest is required at the final checkpoint, 120 miles from the finish line.

* Rules: Each team can start with no more than 14 dogs and must finish with no fewer than six. Dogs can be pulled from the team and carried in the sled until the next checkpoint or drop. None can be added. Mushers can receive no outside assistance except at the mid-point rest in Dawson. Mushers are required to carry an ax, snowshoes, a sleeping bag and six pounds of dog food per dog for each day.

* Prizes: The top 15 finishers share a purse of $125,000. First place is $30,000. Prize money is a combination of entry fees and donations from dozens of sponsors, ranging from a giant German tire company to a Fairbanks girlie bar.

* Advice to newcomers: People in the Far North pride themselves on directness, and the Yukon Quest guidelines for watching are written in that spirit. Tips: “Don’t expect anything from anyone.” And, “Don’t believe everything the mushers tell you. . . . Some mushers are great story tellers and equally great bull-shooters.” Also, “Don’t over pack. . . . It’s OK to wear the same clothes for several days [or weeks] on the Quest trail.” And, finally, this: “Get the hell out of the way.”


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