May is spring. It seems like a rather odd time to write about a 1,000 mile sled dog race. However, the Yukon Quest – the other long dog race that isn’t the Iditarod, is in the news. Although it’s not in the mainstream news. The Quest has been deathly ill for the past few years. Some might say that poor financial management was the cause, but that is far from true. The mismanagement has nothing to do with the woes of the Quest, but rather with the change in musher base that long-distance sled dog racing must have.
I was the Yukon Quest trail coordinator in 2009. The writing was written on the wall many years ago. As the track coordinator, I asked for guys who could live and work in conditions and temperatures down to minus 50…alone. Two guys showed up: Bruno Bauris and Mike Rietz. Mike took over track duties in 2011 and is still there. The problem is this: there aren’t many dog handlers in the sport these days who can or will handle the extreme temperatures and long, lonely runs that the Yukon Quest demands.
The Quest was originally designed for the small kennel. The idea was to run a race that was an alternative to the Iditarod that was very difficult, inexpensive, and focused on dog care. The Yukon Quest met those criteria. The original quest had a 12-dog limit, and teams were only allowed to drop three dogs, in total, on the entire course. Sonny Lindner won the inaugural event with a team of nine dogs. From beginning to end. My first Quest team had all the dogs I owned in an eight dog team. We could do that in the 1980s and still be competitive.
[Alaska organizers say they’re ending Yukon Quest partnership with Canada over mandatory rest proposal]
The times have changed. Mushers have changed. There are no more Bush Alaska teams coming to town to race the Quest. Heck – there are few teams left in the villages. The perception is that it takes 50 dogs to compete in a long distance race. The family with a recreational kennel has little chance of success against a “professional” team that keeps a hundred dogs and can afford to give them all top-notch nutrition. And, as with high-level horse racing, there are performance-enhancing drugs.
These are some of the factors that make small kennels reluctant to traverse the coldest and loneliest part of Alaska during the darkest time of the year. Cold and dark. Long runs between checkpoints with little support. How many people are able to do that these days? Previously, 40 teams ruled the Yukon. This last quest saw three finishers. Ridiculous.
The Yukon Quest has always operated under two separate boards; one in Alaska and the other in the Yukon. Since the inception of Yukon Quest, there has always been a bit of friction between the councils. Sometimes, disagreements within the management led to temporary interruptions. This is where we are today. The drop in registrations has sparked a lot of discussion, leading to different solutions proposed by the people currently in charge.
The Alaska side appears to be in for a long run. Canadians say there is little interest in a 1,000 mile event. Their solution is to organize several races, the longest being a 450 mile race. The Canadians might be right, but can overlook a few more obvious factors, which is that the Alaskan race was almost a race – the Alaskan race was only 300 miles. In addition, to enter Canada, participants must be vaccinated against COVID. Not everyone is willing to do this; especially the marginal mushers of small kennels who can be a little more “bushy”.
These marginal mushers are the bread and butter of the Yukon Quest, or were. Maybe, just maybe, instead of arguing about what kind of race to run, the organizers should get together and try to put together something that appeals to the little kennels. It worked once and may do the trick again. If the Canadian government insists on vaccination as a requirement, then an Alaska-wide event could be a distinct possibility. The Quest is not the Iditarod. The breed should not be the little brother of this breed. Mushers don’t like the cold and the dark these days? Host the Yukon Quest around the end of March. Long drives between checkpoints not your thing? Run the quest on the Yukon, once the teams have reached Circle, instead of going up the river. Begin the Yukon Quest – and end in Fairbanks; 90 miles would be the longest run. Villages along the Yukon would host a race like the Quest.
Bringing the race closer to the original format could once again attract the few remaining small kennels. Twelve dogs is a lot. The Percy-De-Wolfe, a 200-mile race from Dawson, to Eagle and back, once had a seven-dog limit and allowed no dogs to be dropped. Regardless of how the Yukon Quest is reimagined, the focus must once again be on attracting a minimum of 20 dogteams. The Alaska board and Canadians should ask kennels about what might make them consider racing.
The quest finishers club is not who to ask. Us old dudes don’t necessarily run those races these days. Ask kennels who might be racing, or just looking for an event that’s in Alaska. Let’s have an event that feels like Alaska, where the checkpoints are run by Alaskans, not volunteers from Texas and Oklahoma. It’s possible that some of the old dudes will hang them for one last hurray.