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Volume 35
Issue 13
 
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Iditarod and Yukon Quest: The last great historic races on earth
Iditarod and Yukon Quest: The last great historic races on earth
by Rev. Barbara Allen, CMP - SGN Contributing Writer

What's now called the Iditarod Trail was used by natives long before white men came seeking furs, gold and coal. In winter the ways to get around in the frozen north were snowshoes or dogsleds.

In cold months, ports like Nome became icebound, preventing steamship delivery of supplies. By the early part of the twentieth century, when ports froze and steamships could not get through, bush pilots could fly some cargo in, but not under severe storm conditions. Dog sleds remained the default method of transportation at those times. Mushing was a necessary means of transportation.

When diphtheria erupted in Nome in 1925, all were in danger; particularly the Inuit (native) children, who had no immunity to white men's diseases. The nearest supply of anti-toxin serum was in Anchorage. The only planes available had both been dismantled, and had never flown in winter. An emergency plan evolved. A 20 pound cylinder of serum was sent by train from Seward to Nenana, where it was passed on January 27th to the first of a relay of 20 mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome in severe Arctic weather conditions. Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived at Front Street in Nome on February 2nd at 5:30 a.m. Most mushers, however, consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo the true heroes of the serum run because they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum further than any other team.

By the 21st Century, mushing (one human, a sled, a team of dogs, working together) had become an established Arctic sporting event in Canada's Yukon Territory and Alaska, including the two greatest historical races on planet Earth. The 1,100-mile Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race honors the mushers and their dogs who saved Nome from the 1925 diptheria epidemic, with an annual run from Anchorage to Nome. The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which follows the historic Gold Rush and Mail Delivery routes dating from the turn of the 20th century, from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, through Dawson City, to Fairbanks in Alaska.

Both race courses cover a thousand miles or more in which mushers on dog sleds and their dogs race across a frozen world from start to finish for prize money that is barely enough to maintain their team during the rest of the year.

There are four significant differences between these two events. First, the Iditarod has 25 checkpoints that teams have to visit, including start and finish. Teams are carefully tracked from one point to another, and if a team is long delayed, a search is made. The Yukon Quest has only 10 checkpoints, including start, finish, and a mandatory 36 hour rest in Dawson City for dogs and mushers. The longest distance between checkpoints is 200 miles. This means that Yukon Quest teams have to camp overnight in the open without check point support.

Second, Iditarod contestants can use more than one sled and strategize this, usually starting the race with a heavier freight sled, changing midway to a smaller sled, and finishing with a light sprint sled once they reach the coast. Yukon Quest contestants are allowed one sled only, except in unusual circumstances. If a sled is destroyed because of driver or team error or ineptitude, and cannot proceed, they are likely to be penalized for replacing that sled. However, if there's an unexpected act of nature such as a moose or elk destroying the sled, the driver may be allowed a substitute. Either way, if more than one sled is needed on the YQ, there are likely to be penalties at the discretion of the Race Marshall.

In both races, equipment beyond what's in the starting sleds must be left ahead of time by mushers at established race checkpoints for their own use as needed. YQ sleds typically carry heavier loads than those on the Iditarod. YQ mushers have to do it all themselves with no outside help, except at the Dawson City mandatory 36 hour rest. Thus, YQ mushers carry all needed equipment with them on their sled, food and supplies, at all times. They are not allowed to replace their sleds or accept any help, except at this half way point of the race, at the home of the Klondike Gold Rush, well known for its hospitality and support of mushers. The dogs are well cared for here too, including individual massages.

The Iditarod crosses two mountain ranges, while the Yukon Quest crosses four mountain ranges, with topography and weather more challenging than on the Iditarod.

Both races are open to men and women who compete as equals.The first woman to enter and finish the Iditarod was Mary Shields, who still mushes her dogs, for the joy of it, but no longer competes. She broke through the "ice" ceiling of the sport -- encouraging women to compete, and win. (More about this remarkable woman in another story, and the enjoyable evening spent with her and her dogs on the outskirts of Fairbanks in her hand made log home.) Since then, women have competed and won, repeatedly, including Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher. The only woman to win the Yukon Quest was Aliy Zirkle, in 2000.

This year, Lance Mackey, Champion of the 2007 Yukon Quest, became the first musher in history to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Fresh from his third consecutive Yukon Quest win this past February, with a record race time of 10 days, 2 hours and 37 minutes, Mackey crossed the Iditarod finish line on Front Street in Nome at 8:08 p.m. local time&with nine of his original 16-dog team! Many dogs on his Iditarod team also competed in this year's Yukon Quest - the combined distances of the two races equaling that of a sled dog race from Miami to New York City.

Mackey is quoted as saying at the finish: "This feels really great, I am so proud of this team&All nine of these amazing dogs here at the finish ran the Yukon Quest this year. A lot of people doubted the abilities of this team, but they have so much drive. ... They're awesome!"

Wearing bib number 13, Mackey will enter the history books alongside his father, Dick, and brother, Rick, all three Iditarod Champions who wore bib number 13 when they won. Rick is also a Yukon Quest Champion, but won the two races in separate years. At the conclusion of this year's Yukon Quest, Mackey said his future goals include five consecutive Yukon Quest victories. The historic Silver (25th) Running of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race will begin from Fairbanks Alaska on February 9th, 2008; with mushers headed for Whitehorse. The race is run in alternate directions every other year (source: www.YukonQuest.com).

Mackey's speeds on the trail were clocked at an amazing 11 mph as opposed to the usual 5 mph of other contestants. Further, the same dogs crossed the finish line at both races! No one had ever accomplished this amazing feat before!

The Yukon Quest begins on the second Saturday of February, each year. The Iditarod follows starting on the first Saturday in March each year. Many feel that the lesser known Yukon Quest is truer to the origin and essence of the Arctic history being commemorated than today's Iditarod, and that the Yukon Quest is a more challenging course.

Driving towards Anchorage through Wasilla last summer there were hundreds of wooden dog sleds on roofs, porches and in yards along the row of shanty houses fronting the highway. I thought wistfully of my similar dog sleds, hanging under cover at home: two racers and one freighter, all of Thompson design. Ruby Thompson honored me by placing the last freight sled she'd built by hand and used herself with me so that I could sled train my Newfoundland dogs decades past.

Giant dogs aren't racers so much as freight haulers. True working dog lovers are more concerned with what a working dog can do, than how the dog looks cosmetically. (Newfs had served in the Aleutian Islands in WWII pulling sleds and sledges, for the Army.)

She'd smiled approvingly years later at the huge banner I'd displayed at the Seattle Kennel Club benched dog show which read: "It's what a dog does that counts, not just how he looks." A herding dog should be able to herd; a field dog should be able to find and retrieve game; and a working dog should be able to do those tasks for which their breed was originated. Breed standards originated as a biological blueprint for a dog that could do what it was bred to do. Nowadays that's not always the case, which is what makes events such as field trials for pointers, retrievers and setters; coursing (for gaze hounds); and sled dog racing important. If people value performance above appearances, it might help eliminate some of the serious genetic problems that ignoring these guidelines has created -- to the great sadness and loss of dogs and dog lovers.

In the frozen north, sled dog racing is the premier outdoor sport. Mushers train and prepare for the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest all year long. It's a strenuous and expensive "hobby." Perhaps some compete because they want to be the best. Perhaps some compete because they love the cold air in their faces in a pristine white wilderness shared with enthusiastic canine friends; isolated from civilization.

Purebred dogs do not reign in this sport. Mushers have their own life-and-death practical ideas about what makes a good working sled dog and that might be part Malamute, Siberian, Wolf, Hound, Rottweiler&whatever works. Perhaps, when "mutts" far outperform purebreds it's time for "lower 48" dog fanciers and breeders to take a long hard look at what they're doing, what they've got, and what a breed standard should be about.

But then, it's time we took a long hard look at the way we've been living for too long -- the resulting diseases, ecological and environmental damage in progress, and how we evaluate other people, life, what's important, and what's not. We have lessons to learn from the Iditarod and Yukon Quest wisdom of the Arctic.

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