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.
Starting the race: into the wild
At the start line, I join the huddle of people beside the chute where the mushers will depart, a narrow road of packed ice lined on either side by a knee-deep bank of snow. In the distance, the trail slopes slightly upwards and then abruptly dissolves into the mist.
Beyond it traces the course of the Yukon River for much of the way, meandering north between small checkpoints (where mushers can grab a hot meal) before a compulsory break in Dawson City, the crucible of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. From there, the teams will cross the Arctic Circle and continue up to Fairbanks via a handful of precipitous mountain ranges.
Someone is speaking into a microphone. Opposite, there’s a crowd peeking out from frosted parkas at the start line, where the first musher, Denis Tremblay, is ushering his team into the chute. He pats one of his lead dogs, a grey and white Alaskan husky wearing a blue jacket, before stepping onto the sled.
Eager dogs heading to the starting chute © Georgia Stephens
Ahead lies some of the most dangerous wilderness on the planet: fractured mazes of hazardous jumble ice, mountain ranges that are beacons for blinding storms and endless tracts of boreal forest sheltering bears, mountain lions and wolves. Through it all, mushers and their dog teams face frostbite, isolation and sleep deprivation with blisteringly cold days and the long Arctic nights. It’s a battle for survival and not for the faint of heart.
A countdown begins over the microphone and is echoed by the crowd: “Eight! Seven! Six! Five!” At zero, Denis Tremblay erupts from the chute and skids past me, his dogs jumping with excitement in their traces and throwing up a fine spray of ice in their wake. The crowd whoop and clatter heavy metal bells until he disappears over the brink. The next mushers depart shortly after: Brent Sass, a Quest veteran from Alaska; Remy Leduc, a helicopter pilot from New Brunswick. The seventh to leave is Matt Hall.
His team trots across the ice and comes to a stop in the chute. The huskies, now wearing red jackets and fluorescent yellow booties, are grinning widely and drown out the announcements with their eager, chattering barks. The countdown starts at six: “And they’re off!” The team simultaneously throw their weight into the traces and charge down the centre of the road, sled skittering after them on the smooth ice. I watch as Matt Hall melts into the mist.
The halfway point: Dawson City
Four days later I’m in Dawson, the half-way point of the race, and the cold has loosened its grip on the Yukon: it’s a balmy -20°C. I’m on the outskirts in an RV park behind the Bonanza Gold Motel, with a ramshackle camp of tarpaulin tents laid out in front of me. Each one is stuffed with hay, the scent of it hangs in the air, and inside I can make out several pairs of pointed ears. It’s eerily silent, and I’m conscious of the crunching of my boots in the snow.
This is the dog yard, where the Quest teams (who’ve been arriving overnight) come to recuperate for a mandatory 36 hours. Up until now the dogs have been working in even run/rest schedules, but their mushers haven’t slept more than a wink while camping on the trail. With access to trained handlers for the night, many have fled for the hotels – though some have elected to bed down with their dogs.
Mushers have very strong bonds with their Alaskan huskies © Georgia Stephens
I find Matt Hall in the far corner, adjusting his sled beside a triangular green tent. He’s surprisingly chipper, no worse for wear save for the small patch of frostbite on the bridge of his nose, but he arrived in Dawson later than expected. One of his favourite dogs, a russet female called Salcha, took ill just before the Pelly Crossing checkpoint and was diagnosed with cancer.
“I ended up staying nine hours in Pelly, until there was nothing more I could do for her,” he says as a handler noisily shovels snow behind him. “I was so happy when I got here and saw her waiting in my truck, happy to see me. It was a relief. And my other dogs are doing really well.”
While here, they dogs will receive at least one complete physical examination by the veterinary team before they’re given the go-ahead to continue with the race. The vets are seeing fewer instances of frostbite in the yard with the increasing temperatures.
“This time last year it was 60 below zero. That was pretty rough!” Hall says, grinning. “But that’s part of the adventure – it’s what makes the Quest a quest!”
The next morning, I leave for Whitehorse. Matt Hall departs Dawson a little before 6am, and crosses the finish line four days later in fifth place, after a total of nine gruelling days and 13 hours on the trail. In some ways, the Yukon Quest is less of a race and more a battle with the elements, a testament to northern culture and a memorial to that sepia-toned time when life in the Klondike was nothing but a struggle to survive. Struggle over, Matt Hall’s dogs were given steaks.
Georgia Stephens flew to Whitehorse with Air Canada. Windows on The Wild offers a 7-night ‘Husky Adventure in the Yukon’ package. For more info visit windowsonthewild.com. For more on the Yukon, visit travelyukon.com or explore-canada.co.uk.
Top image: Dogs and musher leaving Whitehorse © Georgia Stephens