The most startling thing about the beginning of a sled dog race is the transition of the dog teams from loud, noisy bundles of muscled excitement to silent, smooth, well organized teams with one focus: pulling that sled to wherever they are told to go.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the start of the annual Yukon Quest.
This frenetic energy gets carried all the way along the trail and will be barely diminished when Whitehorse welcomes the exhausted mushers and dogs as they finish “the toughest sled dog race in the world”.
Run since 1984, The Yukon Quest is the result, like so many great ideas, of a discussion around a bar-room table.
Each year since, the 1,000-mile sled dog race has followed the historic Gold Rush trail and traditional mail delivery routes between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse (the start alternates between the cities each year).
In between these two outposts of civilization, the route covers some of the most rugged terrain in the North during the most inhospitable time of year, as any of the six mushers airlifted off of Eagle Summit in 2005 can surely attest.
“The trail is in quite good condition, though it’s a bit cold,” says Melanie Bedard, logisitics co-ordinator for the Canadian Yukon Quest office.
This year’s edition of the famous race has 24 mushers lining up at the start in Fairbanks.
“There are quite a few rookies in this year’s race which opens the field a bit,” Bedard says and, indeed, with 10 of the starters new to the Quest, that’s almost half the mushers.
Nine returnees from last year and a sprinkling of veterans, coming back for more after a year or so off, round out the participants.
Standing out from the rest are veteran Frank Turner, who has missed only one Yukon Quest (2006) since its inception, and Lance Mackey, who won both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod last year.
As always, the roster is international with mushers from Canada, the USA and Europe.
The race begins on Feb. 9 in Fairbanks, Alaska with few changes to its organization or course.
“There is a new four-hour layover in Eagle this year,” says Bedard. “This is to give the vets another opportunity to check on the dogs,” referring to the large number of veterinarians at each checkpoint who ensure the dogs are healthy enough to continue in the race.
The usual unpredictability of the thermometer at this time of year, the difficulties of the course, coupled with the number of newcomers to the race, this year’s Yukon Quest promises to offer up a compelling saga of race designed to test the limits of both man and beast.
To follow the race as it progresses, visit www.yukonquest.com and find out when to head to the White Pass building at the end of Main Street to welcome in the mushers.