Saturday, February 24, 2007

Finishing the Quest

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is the twin jewel to the Iditarod in the crown of long-distance mushing. They are, however, two very different types of races. Both are in the thousand-mile category, and are the only two sled dog races of such length held in North America; the Iditarod is slightly longer, by a hundred miles or so. The Quest is a far lonelier race; it only has ten checkpoints (including start and finish), compared to Iditarod’s 27, with up to two hundred miles between checkpoints. The Quest’s trail is full of tall mountains and deep snow, where the Iditarod has more wide-open, flat terrain with high winds and glare ice. Both races are extreme tests of human and canine stamina, endurance, and will.

Both races celebrate the contribution of sled dog teams to the history of Alaska and northern Canada. Iditarod honors the efforts of mushers in 1925 to get life-saving diphtheria serum out to the disease-stricken village of Nome. The Quest honors all the dogs and drivers of the past two hundred years who opened up the Far North to settlement and commerce without benefit of roads, snowmachines, or airplanes. The Quest taps into the gold rush history around Dawson City, as the Iditarod does around the now-deserted village of Iditarod.

Of the two races, the Quest has remained the smaller in terms of the size of the field. Most years, it draws about thirty teams to enter, with five to ten teams scratching before completion. The Quest has a limit of 50 teams. The Iditarod has no stated limit, and had an initial sign-up of over 100 teams this year. Some have already withdrawn, and the final starting number for 2007 will be 92 teams. As many as two dozen or more may scratch before finishing.

The Quest, which began in 1984, is run between Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In even-numbered years, it starts in Fairbanks and goes east. In odd-numbered years, it starts in Whitehorse and goes west. Mushers who have run the race two years in a row—and gone both ways—say it is two different races, depending on direction. The mountains seem completely different and the long two-hundred-mile leg between Dawson City (the halfway point) and Pelly Crossing is in the Whitehorse half, which some mushers say is easier on the dogs when it comes later in the race rather than earlier.


This great photo is of Aliy Zirkle and her team running the Yukon Quest in 2000, the year she became the first woman to win the race. With the 2007 race just completed, she remains the only woman to have ever done so. In 1999, when she finished in fourth place, she was presented the Challenge of the North Award, which is given to the musher who most represents the “Spirit of the Yukon Quest”. I came across this photo by accident when I was looking through some old calendars in search of a copy of the Iditarod logo, which I wanted to use in the last post. Never found the logo, but was delighted to find this photo by Laurent Dick in the 2001 Mushing Alaska Calendar. The caption under the photo reads:

“2000 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Aliy Zirkle, 30, of Two
Rivers, Alaska, northeast of Fairbanks, mushes up King Solomon’s Dome, at 3,800
feet the highest point in the race. [Looks a lot more like coming down than going up to me!] The first woman champion in the
Quest’s 17-year history, she had the third fastest time in the history of the
race. Zirkle led the race from the halfway point at Dawson City to the
finish line near Whitehorse. Zirkle grew up in New Hampshire and Puerto
Rico and came to Alaska in 1992 as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist
working in Bettles. She entered her first Quest in 1998 finishing
seventeenth. In 1999 she finished fourth. Her first place finish in
2000 took ten days, 22 hours and one minute and won her $30,000.”

The 2007 Yukon Quest was won four days ago by Lance Mackey. He not only set a new course record with a finishing time of 10 days, 4 hours, 3 minutes (breaking his own record from 2006); he also equaled Hans Gatt’s amazing record of three Quest wins in a row. It was Gatt in 2002, ‘03, and ‘04; and Mackey in ‘05, ‘06, and ‘07. Such a feat is a solid testament to the training and driving skills of the musher. The only consecutive winner in the Iditarod’s history is Susan Butcher, who won in 1986, ’87, and ’88 (and was second by only a few minutes in ’89, won in ’90, was second in ’91. Yeah. Wow.).

Lance was in Bethel for his first K300 last month, and finished in eighth place. His is an inspiring story. He is a survivor of throat cancer, which required radical revision of his neck; he now has very few salivary glands left, and carries a bottle of water with him at all times. When he started mushing again after his treatment, he named his dog yard The Come Back Kennel. He and his dogs have certainly lived up to that name! Lance is also one of very few mushers who run both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Mostly with two different teams, though a few stellar canine athletes may do both races. He’ll have eleven days to rest between finishing the Quest and starting the ‘Rod. No problem.

For more “insider insights” on this year’s Iditarod than I will have, let me suggest you check out the new blog over at Aliy's SP Kennels. Aliy’s sister Kaz will be posting updates from the trail regularly. Both Aliy and her husband Allen Moore are running the race; Aliy will drive the varsity team—competitively—and Allen will take a slower pace with the JVs. It all starts in one week.

Photo of Lance by The Tundra PA.



Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

De-lurking to let you know I'm still here; still reading; still loving it all. Many thanks.

Monday, February 26, 2007 12:34:00 PM  

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