Yukon Quest Time

Back in 1988, when we got our first dog, Sabre, ( a samoyed) we had no interest in mushing or sled dogs. We had no idea the path rescuing that old dog would take us down. I wanted a Sammie because they are incredibly beautiful dogs. That was it – I confess to being shallow.

It was only a year later we discovered people running sled dogs in the UK and even better, someone running a Sammy team. We spent some time chatting with them and got some hints and a harness. So, Kim Bird, if you ever happen across this blog – really, this is all your fault !  Anyway, that was our starting point……… fast forward 20 years and at least that many dogs and we reach today. Sled dogs have taken over our lives, we seem to eat, sleep and breathe dog (sometimes literally, unfortunately).

Running dogs in the UK is generally a short, dirty affair – mud everywhere, mild temperatures and distances over 5 miles considered to be “too far”.  I’m never sure why we seem to have come to accept this as gospel – but it is the predominant aspect of the sport here. New people coming in only ever see and hear of sprint racers, and so it continues…….  For whatever reason, once I discovered that people actually ran dogs on sleds on snow in parts of the world, and that they even went quite far, my interest was piqued. Despite racing sprint in the UK, my eyes always strayed across the Atlantic and I read all the sled dog books and magazines I could find. Of course, people sprint race everywhere but if any one race manages to get public attention, it is almost guaranteed to be the Iditarod. Now, there is an event that catches the imagination.  A thousand miles by dog team ! And all in the glare of TV cameras and photographers and newspapers and publicity . And lurking in the background, I found another 1000 mile dog race, the Yukon Quest.  Since then, I have always followed the Quest – maybe it’s the British thing of favouring the underdog – but it always seems the Quest struggles to attract the attention and funding that the Iditarod manages. For every 4 Iditarod books on my bookshelf, there seems to be only one written about the Quest and its racers.

I have no desire to run the race – heck, I like being in a nice warm bed every night too much to ever contemplate 14 nights (or more) behind a sled, dozing for an hour at a time if you’re lucky. But, I have tremendous admiration for all of those who take off on either of these long distance marathons.

Of course, actually knowing someone who is taking part suddenly brings it so much closer…… which brings me up to  February 2008, when Mike Ellis of Tsuga Siberians was running his first Yukon Quest.  Somehow, I managed to persuade my wife that really, Mike and Sue needed me to help them at the Quest start in Fairbanks. It was a dream come true to land in Anchorage and see the impressive mountain ranges – and then to “hop” up to Fairbanks prior to the race start. Having dinner at the Two Rivers Lodge with Mike and Sue, Sue’s brother Scott (their real handler) and Bill McKee, was an experience. It seemed practically everybody in there that night had either already raced the Quest, or was qualified to do so. I really hope I managed to keep my mouth from dragging on the floor.Harnessing Ambler at the Quest start

Mike making last minute adjustments
Mike making last minute adjustments

I was extremely honoured ( and more than a little apprehensive) when Mike asked if I’d like to drive the sled from the parking lot down on the Chena River to the start line. Despite the reassurances that there would be sufficient handlers to prevent a runaway team, my head was filled with the visions of gate crashing the official start and being on the local news. Fortunately, Mike’s dogs are all incredibly focussed (and the organisers also tie the sled off to a snowmachine for the trip down to the river), so I managed not to become a footnote in Quest annals.

Only moments to go - Mike on the Chena River at the Quest start (and if you look really closely, you can just about see me on the sled brake)
Only moments to go - Mike on the Chena River at the Quest start (and if you look really closely, you can just about see me on the sled brake)

I reckon the photo above is as close as I’ll ever get to starting the Yukon Quest – those 3 guys had a pretty darn good grip…………………

Mike had an excellent rookie race, finishing in just under 12 days and 10 hours – which also gives them the honour of setting a new record for the fastest team of Siberian huskies to finish the Quest.

And so, up to date – this has been rather a convoluted way of saying – Yukon Quest 2009 starts tomorrow. Mike is making another run at it – this year the trail runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, so he’ll get to see it in reverse.  We’ll be glued to the computer, watching for trail updates, listening to on-line radio from Whitehorse and hoping that everything goes well for all of the entrants. We will of course be rooting hugely for Mike.

Good luck to all Quest entrants.

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