Issue: 2017-02-08, PHOTO: courtesy of Yukon Quest
“In the 2015 Yukon Quest, we were going up over Eagle Summit… it can be a real challenge, an extremely steep summit, and we'd heard terrible things about it. My dogs were amazing, barking, screaming with happiness, getting a high off of having to pull so hard to get up it – it was wonderful to see,” says Ryne Olson, a veteran musher.
Olson is one of six women set to compete in the 2017 Yukon Quest. While the majority of racers are men, dog mushing is unusual in the world of sports in that men and women participate together. When you consider the prevalence of sports dividing participation along gender lines, this is actually quite unusual for such a physically demanding sport; even the World Pool and Billiard Association divides their tournaments between men and women, with billiards being a substantially less physically rigorous discipline than mushing.
While there are serious challenges to being a musher – weather and harsh survival conditions among them – Olson says that, “it's easy to remember the positives and good mushers are good at forgetting the negatives.”
Musher Paige Drobny started mushing with her husband when they were in university together.
“My husband built me a dog sled for Christmas when we were in grad school… and we thought maybe we should get some dogs… he went away for a weekend and I got three dogs from the shelter while he was gone,” laughs musher Paige Drobny of Squid Acres Kennels in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Drobny started the Yukon Quest with the shorter Quest 300, a 300 mile qualifying race that starts the same day at the full 1,000 mile Quest, but runs from Whitehorse to Carmacks.
“I was hoping it would suck really bad so I would never have to do it again,” says Drobny. “But I was mad when I had to turn back (at Carmacks). That was when I knew I wanted to do this seriously.”
Last year, both Drobny and her husband, Cody Strathe, ran the Yukon Quest and Iditarod – another a major sled race, which starts on Feb. 25 – together, an experience Drobny says was, “a ton of fun… and really special.”
It was a lot of work, however, and so this year only Drobny is running the Quest, while Strathe will be doing the Iditarod.
Yukon Musher Yuka Honda, originally of Japan, got her start in the sport when she went on a trip to Yellowknife as university student, where she went dog sledding. The experience stayed with her and she loved it so much that, two years later in 1998 she immigrated to the Northwest Territories to work with sled dogs. Eventually she moved to Alaska to compete in long distance races and then to the Yukon in 2009, where she set up her kennel, Ginga Express.
“Each race, even small races, have amazing memories,” Honda says.
The number of women in this year's Yukon Quest is reflective of a long history of women in the sport. Women have been participating in the the Yukon Quest since its inception in 1984 and have participated alongside men in every race with the exception of 2005, a year which saw unusually low rates of enrolment in the race over all, according to the official race statistics on the Yukon Quest website.
In the 2000 Yukon Quest, American musher Aliy Zirkle became the first and only woman to ever win the race.
Olson says she doesn't feel her gender impacts her experience as a dog musher. Olson actually worked and trained with Zirkle and her dogs are descended from SP Kennels, which Zirkle operates.
“It all comes down to your relationship with the dogs – your gender doesn't make any difference,” Olson says. “All the dogs are so different, so uniquely gifted and flawed, so special… you have such incredible adventures together.”
Paige Drobny echoes Olson’s sentiments. “I don't feel there are any extra challenges (to being a female musher) – I've never felt being a woman was ever really an issue,” she says.
Drobny points out that she just competed in the Copper Basin 300, a qualifying sled dog in Glennallen, Alaska, where the top three placing competitors were women.
Honda agrees with her fellow female competitors; gender doesn't really matter on the trail. “It's all about character,” she says. “Women don't always have the same physical power as men, but we have lots of character.”
In additional to their mutual agreement that their gender has no impact on their sport, the woman also agree on one important point: no one dog could possibly be their favourite.
“All my dogs are my favourite – they're my babies,” says Honda.
The 2017 Yukon Quest race started in Whitehorse this year, on Saturday, Feb. 4 at Shipyards Park, and the finish line is in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The race website at www.YukonQuest.com features a GPS tracking tool to watch the race progression, in addition to detailed information about all competing mushers.
This Year's Brave and Bold Female Yukon Quest Racers
Kennel: Squid Acres Kennel
Nationality: American (Fairbanks, AK)
Kennel: Ginga Express Kennel
Nationality: Japanese (Yukon resident)
Kennel: Team Baker Kennel
Nationality: American (Kotzebue, AK)
Kennel: Nature's Kennel
Nationality: American (McMillan, MI)
Kennel: Ryno Sled Dog Kennel
Nationality: American (Two Rivers, AK)
Kennel: The J Team
Nationality: American (Fairbanks, AK)