The Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dog-sled race between the Yukon (one of our destinations to visit in 2019) and Alaska, is renowned for being the toughest of its kind. Georgia Stephens joins the dog teams at the start line.
My face freezes the instant I step outside. First my forehead tightens oddly as my brows abruptly crisp, and the edges of my eyes begin to fuse with the creeping ice. I take a breath and the insides of my nostrils crystallise unpleasantly as though they’ve just been plugged with cold sand, and I watch as the lenses of my glasses fog and ice over like a car’s windshield.
I’m in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, Canada, and the temperature is brushing 40 below. I’m crunching across Shipyards Park and there are 30 dog teams ahead, barking and howling, their calls piercing the incessant rumble of the trucks idling beside them. The air is heavy with the mist rolling off the hills, infused with the smell of petrol and hay and tinted gold by the morning light. In less than an hour, the 36th annual Yukon Quest will begin.
Huskies waiting by the trucks before the race begins © Georgia Stephens
Covering 1,000 miles between the Whitehorse and Alaska, the Yukon Quest is known as the world’s most difficult dog-sled race. Competitors drive teams of up to 14 dogs along historic Gold Rush routes, their sleds laden with food and survival supplies. They can travel as many as 200 miles in a day. The race length is equivalent to the distance between London and Marseille, with few checkpoints and nothing but the frigid Arctic wilderness in between.
I pause in the snow beside a red and black sled, emblazoned across the front with a cartoon of a jaunty dog smoking a pipe. Smokin’ Ace Kennels, it reads, smoke forming the S, an ace of spades in the place of the A. Beside it a musher is making the final adjustments to the sled's ties, with a heavy trapper hat pulled down tightly over his peaked cap. There’s a white bib across his chest marked with a bold number seven.
Matt Hall is only 27 years old. At the age of 25, he won his first Yukon Quest. “I’m pretty stoked to get back out there on the trail,” he tells me, leaning back slightly and stuffing his hands into his pockets. “My parents still live like people did 100 years ago in Alaska, so I grew up hunting and trapping and fishing. I’ve been running dogs since I was five, it just feels like home.” He smiles and his eyes crinkle, making him appear even younger than he looks.
“And these guys?” He gestures to his dogs. “They’re ready to roll.” They’re sitting in single file behind him, predominantly white and apricot, some with striking blue eyes, one with a splash of black across the saddle. Like all Alaskan huskies, they’re genetic mutts and remarkably resilient, bred for their endurance, speed and desire to pull in a harness.