Dog lovers and mushing aficionados alike will gather on Feb. 4 at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse to watch the start of the 2017 Yukon Quest.
The day begins at 8 a.m., when the dog yard is open to the public and spectators can watch as the mushers prepare themselves and their dogs for the 1,000 mile journey between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska.
At 10:15 a.m. there will be music and a presentation as the dog yard closes down for final preparations before the race.
The exact series of events is yet to be determined but, Natalie Haltrich, Executive Director of the Quest on the Yukon side, says they are hoping to have “a few surprises at the start line.”
The race officially begins at 11 a.m., when the mushers start at three minute intervals. This is followed by a break, and then the start of the Yukon 300 at 3 p.m.
The Quest stretches along 1,000 gruelling miles of frozen trail, alternating its starting and ending places each year between the two cities. This year is Whitehorse’s turn to host the start of the race.
There are currently 22 mushers set to compete in the full race, and 24 mushers entered into the Yukon 300, which is a 300 mile race between Whitehorse and Pelly Crossing.
While the dogs and mushers are certainly the stars of the event, there is a lot going on behind the scenes, says Haltrich. The team of supporting players includes race officials, veterinarians, logistics co-coordinators and a PR team.
“We have an amazing team of volunteers and contractors,” she says.
This year the event also has a new race marshal, Fox Lake resident Fabian Schmitz. A race marshal is in charge of overseeing race operators, enforcing rules with judges to ensure a fair race, and overseeing safety concerns for mushers and dogs alike.
“I’m the guy calling the shots for troubleshooting – with help of course,” he says.
Schmitz, originally from Germany, first became involved with the Yukon Quest in 2009. He has since run as a musher in the the Yukon 300, and has been a judge for the event, as well as a Yukon Quest race manager in 2016.
“Dog mushing… is so much more than just a race. It’s an opportunity as a community event, for businesses and people to come together,” he says.
Both Haltrich and Schmitz note that for optimal race conditions, mushers could use more snow – especially on the Yukon side. Haltrich is not worried, however.
“These are elite canine athletes and professional mushers – I’m sure they can handle it,” she says. “Besides, what we see in Whitehorse is not necessarily indicative of trail conditions for the 999 remaining miles.”
Support from the community and local business has been incredible, says Haltrich. Thanks to this support, the Yukon Quest was able to raise the purse by $5,000 for this year’s race. This year’s prize is US$120,000, to be divided by percentages among the top 15 competitors.
The first musher is expected to cross the finish line on Feb. 13. While it is impossible to say when the last musher will cross the finish line, Haltrich says that the final, or “Red Lantern” musher to finish came in five days behind the first place winner in the 2016 race.
Race progress can be tracked in real time online via GPS.
All events associated with the Yukon Quest are free to the public, with the exception of the Awards Banquets. Tickets for the banquets are already sold out. A complete list of events is available at www.YukonQuest.com.