An Alaskan tradition: The Yukon Quest

The Yukon Quest is the ultimate test of endurance and perseverance; the racers will travel the course of 1,000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Quest is roughly 100 miles less than the well-known Iditarod.

The racers have to battle open water, frozen rivers and four mountain summits throughout the course, with only 9 checkpoints for the entire duration — on average only one every 110 miles.

Sled dog teams can expect to be in competition and out in the wilderness anywhere from nine to 14 days; a lot of the time spent completely alone in the unpredictable and potentially hazardous Alaskan terrain.

The idea might sound absurd, but to Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and William “Willy” Lipps — who scavenged the idea in a saloon in 1983 — it seemed to be the ultimate test of dog mushing. After the first race was set up, they decided to name it the Yukon Quest to honor the Yukon River.

The idea and the name stuck and 34 years later, racers such as Brian Wilmshurst are carrying on the tradition. Wilmshurt has a special connection to the Quest. He got into dog mushing purely from the Yukon Quest, by watching the start in 2007 and will be now racing in it for the fifth time. In addition, Jason Campeau, who has previous experience in races such as the Iditarod, is now participating in his second Yukon Quest.

Campeau knew that regardless of experience, a difficult race takes lots of preparation.

“We started training in September with short runs using our side-by-side and worked out way up to be able to do longer runs on the Quest,” he said.

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Because of the unexpected terrain and conditions, it’s important for racers to be prepared for anything – with that comes practicing and training in all kinds of circumstances. Fortunately, this year’s race looks favorable.

“So far, the conditions look good. We like running when it is cold and are used to it where we live in Canada in the Rocky Mountains,” Campeau said.

Even though conditions might be good, it doesn’t make the race anything close to easy. Wilmshurst has experience in unexpected situations.

“I have had a couple scary times in blizzards trying to find the trail. But really, my dogs are pros and I can trust them to get me through any conditions,” Wilmshurst said.

Regardless, spending upwards of 14 days nearly constantly alone with the dogs in the dark Alaska wilderness wouldn’t be an easy task alone. Fortunately, similar to the positive impact that dogs have on peoples’ everyday lives, these mushers depend on the company and companionship they build with their dogs.

“My favorite thing about dog mushing is being able to be out in the wilderness with my dogs as a team. We truly rely on each other to get where we are going safely. The bond you create with your dogs is truly remarkable,” Campeau said.

Another musher in this year’s quest, rookie Katherine Keith, can relate to relying on her dogs, saying that she has had many learning opportunities in extreme storm conditions that tested the team.

Keith knows to expect the unexpected, but often times that is not a very plausible solution.

“There are scary [situations], but it is more that there are just situations where things could spiral out of control if you don’t think clearly… I’m just doing what I can to be prepared and learn from The veteran Quest mushers about what they have seen on the trail,” Keith said.

It is safe to assume that the Yukon Quest and other long-distance dog mushing races aren’t for the easily frightened; these athletes and their dogs have proved their strength and perseverance. Like any good athlete, they will not step down from a challenge, their current one being the 2017 Yukon Quest.

Campeau, Wilmshurt, Keith and the additional 18 mushers took off on their journey on Feb. 4 with the start being located at Whitehorse and the finish in Fairbanks.

Live tracking of the event can be found at www.yukonquest.com and additional updates can be found on Facebook at Yukon Quest – Official Site.