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Life

World's Toughest Dog Sled Race

Jamaican chivalry and more notes from this year's Yukon Quest.

By Elaine Corden 2 Mar 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden is a regular contributor to The Tyee and is widely published.

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Waiting to start race in Whitehorse, Kyla Boivin's dogs in their specially designed carrier truck. Photo E. Corden.

Early in the morning of Valentine's Day, downtown Whitehorse awakened to a chorus of howls. Not the howls of lonely souls despairing at minus 25 temperatures, but rather a choir of excited dogs, gearing up for this year's Yukon Quest, a 1000-mile sled race from the capital of the Yukon Territories to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Dawn had arrived to reveal hundreds of hounds tended to by human figures wrapped in so many layers as to be unrecognizable. The Gore-Tex mummies were mushers, the men and women who drive the dog-pulled sleds, and handlers, the people who look after the teams' needs at each check point during the race.

The dogs had their own rituals. Some clung to the warmth of their master's trucks, some leapt repeatedly in air as they hyped themselves up, and some barked incessantly as if to say "Let's go already."

Tougher than the Iditarod

This year marked the 26th running of the Yukon Quest, an event started in 1984, which has since gained a reputation as "The World's Toughest Dog Sled Race." As opposed to its much-more famous cousin, the Iditarod, the Quest has only 10 checkpoints on its 1,000 mile journey, compared with the Iditarod's 25.

Mushers must make camp on their own in the course, feeding and resting themselves and their team without the support of handlers or race staff. They must make it over four mountains, as opposed to the Iditarod's two, and they are not allowed to replace their sleds or mandatory supplies without penalty.

If the Iditarod is the race that draws the crowds, the Quest is the race that draws the solitary soul. There is only one spot where mushers are allowed outside help -- a 36-hour mandatory layover in Dawson City, Yukon, which is 451 miles into the race. Other than that, it's just mushers and their dogs.

At the starting line, on what turned out to be a gorgeous and sunny February 14th, there were 29 teams starting this year's Yukon Quest, a total of 406 dogs. A banquet held previous to the start revealed a predictably eclectic assortment of characters. There were the veterans, the big shots who race for a living, including three-time Quest winner Gatt, who is 50, and two-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, also 50. American Lance Mackey, a cancer survivor, who won the last four Quests and the last two Iditarods, would not be racing this year, but his younger brother, Jason, would carry the family name across the snow instead.

There was as well Whitehorse native Kyla Boivin, a veteran at 26. She has been running the Quest since she was 18, and last year won the venerable prize of the "Red Lantern," awarded to the last finisher across the line. Josh Cadzow, at 21, was the youngest competitor, and his involvement was part of an effort to involve First Nations mushers in the race. Yuka Honda, 36, a Japanese musher, had a documentary crew from back home following her every move.

The Caribbean entry

Newton Marshall, 25, under the tutelage of Hans Gatt, represented Jamaica. That's right. Inspired by the publicity generated by the Jamaican bobsled team, the Jamaican dogsled team is storyteller's gold, with Marshall's wide grin, clean-shaven face and lilting accent comical counterpoints to the gruff demeanor of most of the mushers. Marshall grew up in one of Jamaica's most impoverished towns, and now stood waiting at the start line, a green and yellow flag stitched to the back of his parka.

There were more women mushers than one could possibly hope for, as well. Of 29 starters, six will have difficulty writing their name in the snow, should the urge arise. As many are apt to quip at the starting line "Welcome to the Yukon, where the men are men, and the women are men, too."

The race began at 11 a.m., at which point the dogs were apoplectic. The mushers headed off on the first leg of their race (100 miles north to Braeburn, Yukon, where there would be a mandatory 2-hour stop to check on the health of the dogs). At three minute intervals, the mushers take off down the trail grinning like crazy (and surely, they must be a little). The dogs' tongues loll out in what also looks like smiles.

When the mushers and their teams arrived at Braeburn checkpoint, some 12 hours later, their faces were covered in frost, but they looked as energetic as ever. They emerged from the thick forest of the Dawson Overland Trail, the light from their headlamps growing brighter as they grew closer. The dogs seemed reluctant, even unwilling, to stop running, as evidenced by the 10 or so race officials it took to hold them in place while the musher's sleds were checked for mandatory supplies.

The mushers then guided their dogs to a rest yard far away from the prying eyes of observers. There, they were required, before attending to their own needs, to feed, massage, and rest their dogs on bales of straw. The dogs were then checked by race vets to ensure no dog needed to be pulled off the course (mushers start with 14 dogs, but are careful to drop any dog that shows signs of injury. The minimum number of dogs a musher can finish with is six, but most finish with between eight and eleven).

Only after all the dogs are nestled all snug in their beds can the musher think about feeding himself and warming up. That night, Newton Marshall, the Jamaican wonder, settled his team, and then headed into a diner at Braeburn.

A spectator going into the same diner was shocked when the man holding the door for her turns around to reveal a grin. After 12 hours in the freezing cold, before he had eaten or dried his socks, Marshall was a gentleman.

The scent of arrival

After a two-hour rest, the mushers headed out from this tiny town, across the Klondike Highway, back into the forest. As the race leader began to leave, the northern lights chose to reveal themselves in the sky above. For one brief moment, the idea of being alone under a blanket of dancing stars and psychedelic colours in the boreal forest seemed quite romantic. Then the generator died at the diner, at which point the members of the media clustered there seemed more bent out of shape by the lack of Internet than the lack of heat.

There are a few more checkpoints where fans can watch mushers arrive between Braeburn and the halfway point at Dawson City, but in truth, Dawson is where the money shot is. At this halfway point, some mushers had given up ("scratched"), most had dropped dogs, and all were looking, erm, dog tired. The race had opened up at this point, and there were hours, even days, between arrivals. The picturesque, beautiful town was swarming with anxious and exhausted handlers (usually their spouses, as being a handler is surely a labour of love), who, since the race's start had not been able to touch their dogs and mushers

Unlike Braeburn, where a bobbing headlamp alerted spectators to their arrival, you could smell these mushers coming. As Anne Turner, wife of former Quest champion Frank Turner will tell you, there is no smell quite like it.

Again, mushers had to tend to their dogs before themselves, no matter how weary they were from the large mountain (King Solomon's Dome) they had just summited and descended. It was here that you saw the dogs are kings. Their feet massaged, their every hiccup monitored carefully, the four-legged heroes suffered no shortage of love and care. Race-supplied vets offered them all they needed to keep racing, if their bodies would only allow.

Along Second Avenue in Dawson, an exhausted-looking Sue Ellis, handler of New Hampshire musher Mike Ellis, tended to the dogs that had been dropped from her team. One had a sore wrist, another was not eating, and the third, she said, "seems a little gassy, and that's not like her." Yes, monitoring those dogs is serious, sometimes stinky business. Sue had forgotten her poop shovel, and, somewhat surprisingly for a bona fide dog lover, seemed grossed out by picking up after her dogs with a plastic bag.

"Anyways you look at it, you still got a handful of shit." She said with a laugh.

'I gotta eat'

During the 36-hour layover, mushers checked in at race headquarters and got some well deserved rest, either with their dogs at a camp across the frozen Yukon river, or at one of the city's many charming hotels. It's hard not to be a little romanced by the sight of hardy men and women roaming the perfectly preserved gold-rush town. At Bombay Peggy's, a bar seemingly populated by characters from a Jack London novel, the television went on briefly so patrons could watch race leader William Kleedehn, 49, give a checkpoint interview with CBC North.

Kleedehn, a race veteran who competes with a prosthetic leg, looked so wiped that he may fall out of frame at any minute. He did his best to answer questions before declaring, "I gotta eat. I'll answer more shit later." The bar erupted in laughter.

For some mushers, there would be no leaving the tiny city, at least not via sled. Either they or their dogs could not continue, and they were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to scratch. But for those who continued, there would be two more steep summits, and 540 more miles at bone-chilling temperatures. Jumble ice (sharp, dangerous formations that can cut dogs and riders) was predicted on the trail ahead, and mushers checked race headquarters regularly for news of conditions they would face. The summer highway to Fairbanks is closed this time of year, so handlers must drive back down to Whitehorse and take the long way round. It's an epic drive, a journey no doubt wrought with its own perils and hardships (albeit with heated seats).

They left at all hours. Some would make it to Fairbanks, and even more, including the young Cadzow, the family legacy Mackey, lone B.C. musher Jerry Joinson, the persevering Boivin and the Japanese star Honda, would scratch before the finish line. There would be a heartening display of sportsmanship, as Fairbanks musher Brent Sass, 29, parked his team at the top of Eagle Summit (3,865 ft) to help a stuck William Kleedehn get his dogs up the hill. Sass held the front of the line as Kleedhen steered the sled behind. The pictures are enough to make even the heartiest Northerner cry.

The big finish

Nineteen mushers crossed the finish at Fairbanks, some with a team that looked ready to drop, and some with a group of happy, wagging tails. Whitehorse native Sebastain Schneulle, 38, took the win on Tuesday, Feb. 24, with a record-setting time of nine days, 23 hours and 20 minutes, beating Lance Mackey's 2007 record time of 10 days, two hours and 37 minutes by three hours and 17 minutes.

Jamaican Newton Marshall finished, too, although his mentor Hans Gatt scratched in Dawson.

The heroic Alaskan Sass' team quit 40 miles from the finish, but he walked the team across the finish line anyway.

The last two finishers, Iris Wood Sutton, 27, and Becca Moore, 37, finished late Saturday evening, over three days behind the winner, but within just half an hour of each other, with Wood Sutton claiming the last-in Red Lantern prize. The two women spoke of helping each other finish, with Moore telling the press she expects her new friendship with Moore to last a long time.

There was, of course, a $35,000 prize for the winner, but, watching the faces of the finishers, it was more than apparent that finishing this incredible race is a win, in and of itself.

As for the dogs, well, they were the acknowledged champions, kissed first by families before the mushers even got a hug, and settled in their beds immediately for a long, well-deserved rest. They dreamt, it seems, of running again. Residents of Fairbanks reported excited howls the very next morning.

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