A clear Klondike morning spreads before musher Rob Cooke as he perches on the back of his moving sled. Here, on the icy, sun-washed landscape along the Yukon River, 175 kilometres north of Whitehorse, the only sounds are Cooke’s rhythmic breathing and 52 Siberian husky paws crunching in the snow. Ten days from now, Cooke’s team of beloved dogs will pull him across the finish line of his first Yukon Quest international sled-dog race.
The Quest is a gruelling 1,609-kilometre test of fortitude and skill spanning a harsh landscape of frozen rivers and mountains between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. The course, which partly follows the trail of gold rush prospectors, is a testament to international relations, with boards in Alaska and the Yukon managing the competition co-operatively since 1984. Thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Subarctic in early February, the coldest month of the year, to celebrate the sport of the North and experience the thrill of the start line (its location alternates between the cities annually).
For an enthusiastic few, there’s only one way to get a taste of the experience of the toughest sled-dog race in the world: suit up, spend the day on a sled, then grab a beer with a musher. The Yukon Quest journey, run by Cambridge, Ont.- based travel company Jerry Van Dyke Travel Service, offers just that — truly a one-of-a-kind adventure. The photography here, from the 2013 race, is a glimpse into the event.
“It’s not big and corporate,” says Mark Van Dyke, the journey manager, of the Quest tour. “If you want your margarita at 4 p.m., stay the hell at home. This journey is about experiencing the event and being part of the race.”
Over 12 days, groups of up to 16 guests get a feel for the race by becoming event sponsors. They run their own team of sled dogs on Lake Laberge, have an opportunity to meet the mushers at a special event, and can pal around with locals at select checkpoints.
There are 11 such checkpoints hosted by communities along the trail, ranging from about 100 to more than 300 kilometres apart, where race-goers can watch the competition. For competitors, these stops are a chance to replace worn or lost gear (for a time penalty) and get a few hours of rest before heading back into the wilderness. Their dogs are also checked by race veterinarians. (There are also three “dog drops” along the course, where mushers can leave a dog from their team that is injured or not doing well with a vet.)
“These communities wake up with the Quest,” says Marie- Sylvestre Belanger, executive director of the Yukon Quest International Association in Canada. “Sled-dog racing is a lifestyle and the spirit of the North.”
It’s in these small towns that the soul of the Yukon Quest is revealed. Racers share meals, visit with community members — some of whom have become old friends — and chat with some of the thousands of volunteers who come from far and wide.
“That’s what the Quest is about: the people and the dogs. It’s a cliché. You hear that all over the world, and I think most of the time, it’s bull,” says Van Dyke. “But in the Yukon, it’s very true. And once you’re a Yukoner, you’re always a Yukoner.”