The Yukon Quest

Unlike the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is not about commercialism and sponsors; it's about life and death and covering 1,000 rugged miles by dog sled.


Laura Johnston
December 17, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Outside Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada; temperature, 30 below: For five hours I've been poised by a television camera on a sled dog trail in the vast wilderness of the Yukon. Next to me is the spooky hulk of an abandoned gold dredge, and around me, the scenery that inspired the cry "There's gold in them thar hills!" Feet, fingers and nose report no feeling. My three companions, a television crew, are jogging in place one minute and chain smoking the next. Alternately, I pray for mushers to come by and curse them for not appearing.

From around the bend, we hear the jingle of dog harnesses and leap to the camera. It's Jim Hendricks, from Denali Park, Alaska. "Don't worry, they won't hurt you, keep going, go straight, good boy!" he calls to Buddy, his leader. Then, to us, "Where the hell am I? How far to Dawson?" "Just eight miles," we shout. "Oh, Christ, we'll NEVER make it!" he cries in mock despair.

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Watching Hendricks, I am awestruck. His beard is encrusted in ice. His 12 dogs, true athletes, are running gamely after climbing 3,800-foot King Solomon's Dome with a 150-pound sled.

Welcome to Day Six of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska. Twenty-eight mushers from six nations, including Japan, France and Germany, started the race on Feb. 9. They travel 7-12 mph, running six hours, resting six hours, until they cross the finish line about 12 days later. Top prize is $30,000 and a hero's welcome.

Mushers cross some of the meanest, least populated terrain in North America, following trails first used by fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries and the Canadian Mounties, who considered the successful completion of a winter "patrol" through this country one of their highest honors. Mushers ("mush" comes from the French marche! -- meaning "walk") battle fierce winds, temperatures that drop as low as 80 below without wind chill, icy open water and four summits higher than 3,000 feet. On average, one-third succumb to the hardships of the trail and "scratch."

I am here working as part of a television crew assigned to produce a piece for German television. Our story's protagonist is Ralf Zielinski, a 41-year-old German nuclear power plant engineer and mushing enthusiast. With weeks of government-endowed vacation to enjoy, Ralf's goal in running the Quest is to "relax and recreate." We had hoped he was joking, but so far, Ralf is true to his word. He immediately claimed last place and settled in.

The Yukon Quest, while equal in length to the better-known Iditarod, is considered more challenging by many mushers. The distance between checkpoints, where mushers can meet their dog handlers and pick up food, is often greater -- as long as 235 miles -- and the terrain is more varied and arguably more difficult. But the most significant difference is one of power -- dog power. Quest mushers are limited to 14 dogs, which is intended to allow smaller kennel owners to compete and is meant to ensure that more time can be spent caring for each dog.

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The Quest is deliberately less commercial than the Iditarod. Backed largely by local sponsors, the race's low profile has enabled organizers to avoid the kind of criticism that has dogged the Iditarod in recent years. According to mushers who have run both races, the Quest is what the Iditarod used to be, before large-money sponsors put pressure on race organizers to become more PC and conform to the standards of the Lower 48. In fact, the Quest encourages values of the North, expecting mushers to look to each other for support on the trail. And indeed, mushers travel together, build campfires and tell stories as their dog teams bed down, nose to tail. But that doesn't mean mushers aren't competitive. Former Iditarod champion Rick Mackey, who stopped running that race in favor of the Quest, sums it up: "I'm not here for the money. I'm here to win. The money is second."

Dawson, the second-largest city in the Yukon by merit of a population of 1,800, is a six-hour drive north from Whitehorse and serves as a mandatory 36-hour rest stop. Nestled on the banks of the mighty Yukon River, Dawson became an overnight sensation in 1897 when George Carmack and his partners, Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim, struck gold where Rabbit Creek (soon to be renamed Bonanza) empties into the Klondike. Stampeders caused Dawson's population to swell to 35,000, but its heyday was brief and the decline swift, and since then, the town has been just another small burg on the Yukon. Today, Dawson is finding a revival as a tourist outpost, as the millions generated by Diamond Tooth Gertie's casino fund the renovation of the downtown, where colorful wooden cabins and historic storefronts line the boardwalks. As one Alaskan said, "I hate to be positive, but they (read: the Canadians) did a nice job with this town."

The Quest favorites arrived on Valentine's Day and bedded their teams down in the campground under tarps, snuggled in mounds of hay. Defending champion John Schandelmeier, a trapper from Paxson, Alaska, was first in, followed by Mark May, a veterinarian from North Pole, Alaska. Local favorite Frank Turner from Whitehorse, Yukon, was just two hours behind.

The race's current drama revolves around Mackey, fifth in, who did the unthinkable and overslept by four hours in a cabin 50 miles from Dawson. He was finally roused by a puzzled mid-pack musher who shook him awake, saying, "What did you do? Give up?" When Mackey arrived in Dawson, he was still visibly upset. Sleep deprivation is a major factor in long-distance races. Mushers tell tales of mirages seen under the Northern Lights -- log cabins with lit windows, inviting warm blue lakes. At checkpoint lodges, we see confused and exhausted mushers fall asleep face down on the tables in front of their meals.

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We are killing time, waiting for Ralf. We take shifts standing outside by the tripod or sitting in the Downtown Hotel's bar, filled with mushers, dog handlers and the motley crew of 60 journalists. Most everyone smokes, everyone drinks. Conversations revolve around dogs: watering dogs, feeding dogs, exercising dogs.

Journalists were hoping to conjure up some controversy after the newest and largest corporate sponsor, Fulda Reifen, a German tire manufacturer, literally moved into Whitehorse, taking over an office and hanging Fulda banners under highway signs and on City Hall. But the locals just seem happy to have their $180,000 and a pledge not to interfere too much. Money is scarce in the Yukon, where the economy depends on mining and tourism -- and it's even scarcer in winter.

At 6 p.m., Kathy Swenson pulls in. At 37, Swenson
is the first nursing mother to run the Quest. I am
fascinated by her. Swenson's menagerie at her log
home in Two Rivers, Alaska, includes 50 sled dogs,
four kids, and a Jack Russell terrier -- the polar
opposite of my urban, single, working woman life.
Rick Swenson, her ex-husband, five-time Iditarod
winner and a legendary figure in Alaska sports, lives
next door.

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Swenson was injured early in the race when she lost
control of her sled on an icy corner, flew off the trail
and slammed into a tree. Yes, the dogs are true
athletes, but mushers are, too: They often get off the
sled and run alongside their teams to lighten the load,
especially up hills. Swenson's wrenched knee was a
huge blow so early in the race. Her dog handler, Chris
Knott, tried to remedy the situation by building a
bicycle seat onto the back of the sled.

Knott fits the statistical profile of a typical Alaskan --
in his 20s, male, been in Alaska just a few years.
Maybe it's the effect of his red hair, but to me, he
always looks so happy that he's glowing. Knott is the
expert on all things canine: training diet (raw chicken,
horse meat, beef heart and liver, mixed with dog
food, chicken fat and canola oil); breed (part Alaskan
malamute, Eskimo husky and wolf); ideal running
temperature (minus 25 degrees). He teaches me the
dogs' names and their personalities: Psycho, the little
female leader with two different colored eyes,
painfully shy but tough as nails on the trail; Harley, a
big, tan-colored male and reliable veteran of two
Iditarods; Socks, named for his black fur and white
paws, running his fifth 1,000-mile race.

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Day Seven: The lead mushers left Dawson just
before midnight, well-rested and well-fed.
Schandelmeier still has all 14 of his dogs. May,
Turner and Mackey have "dropped" dogs who are
hurt or ill and left them in care of the handlers and
vets. Mushers must finish with at least six. Yukon
Quest veterinarians work with mushers at every
checkpoint to examine each dog, checking for leg
injuries, circulation, pulse rate and overall well-being.
In situations where man and dog depend on each
other for survival, no one can afford to have injured
or ill dogs on the trail.

Ralf has not arrived yet, and except for the occasional
aerial sighting by bush pilot, he is out of contact, in
the great void of the Quest's longest and hilliest run,
over the Black Hills and King Solomon's Dome. Not
yet halfway through the race, he is over two days
behind the leaders. With little information to go on,
we decide to move on. The agenda: Drive south to
Whitehorse, then across the Alaska Highway to
Fairbanks, where we will be based for the second half
of the race. It is a long, stressful drive on treacherous
roads. We nervously observe two road signs at the
junction with Dempster Highway: Inuvik, 350 km.
No service, 300 km.

Day Eight: I am reading John McPhee's "Coming into
the Country." He calls Alaska "a place so vast and
unpeopled that if anyone could figure out how to steal
Italy, Alaska would be a place to hide it." The
scenery is spectacular, but after two days of road
food, I wouldn't mind running into a Tuscan village
right now.

Day Nine: News from the front: Kathy Swenson
arrived in Eagle, the first checkpoint after Dawson,
with a dead dog in her sled bag. Socks simply tipped
over five miles down the trail from Dawson, Swenson
said. She attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,
but to no avail. Socks was a veteran of the 1992, '93
and '95 Iditarods and the 1994 Quest, and one of her
favorites. Aside from the personal loss, Swenson
fears there may be a disease spreading among her
team and decides to scratch. (Later, vets found the
cause was a form of non-infectious hepatitis. After a
few days, I will reach her at home. "Some things are
just not meant to be," she will say in a cracking voice.
"This was just not my year.")

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Day 11: Fairbanks is populated with Camaros and
pickup trucks. The town is situated in a flat and
unattractive spot in Alaska's interior. But there's
plenty of "civilization" here, and we revel in our
upscale hotel room and feast on Alaskan King Crab
legs at night.

We spend the day watching preparations for the
arrival of the winners. A huge arch of ice blocks is
assembled over the finish line and barricades are put
up. After days of solitude on the trail, dogs can panic
when confronted with cheering crowds. We keep
checking in with race officials, who have airplanes out
surveying the field: It looks like a close finish this
year, with four mushers within four hours of each
other.

Day 12: Rick Mackey wins the Quest with a time of
12 days, five hours, 55 minutes, five seconds. With
Ralf almost six days behind, this race is far from over
for us.

Day 13: Hoping to film Ralf on the home stretch, we
drive three hours northeast of Fairbanks to Central,
population 120, a gold mining and trapping area. We
are welcomed with this sign: "NOTICE: We reserve
the right to refuse service to anyone -- including
special interest groups and governmental agencies
with goals threatening to the lifestyle of the Circle
mining district and our means of making an honest
living. -- Owners Jim & Sandy Crabb." I pity any
card-carrying Sierra Club member who stumbles into
this town.

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All of the mushers have passed through here, except
Ralf. We stop at a trapper's cabin to ask for news.
The place is decorated with Alaskan lawn ornaments:
junked vehicles, including a bright yellow truck used
to build the pipeline, a 1940s-era pickup,
motorcycles, snowmobiles. All are in apparent
non-working order and covered by several feet of
snow.

The trapper wears Army-issue Arctic footgear, called
"bunny boots." Two lynx are hanging, frozen, from
the porch rafters. Pieces of frozen caribou carcass
litter the ground, gnawed on by dogs. I pick my jaw
up off the ground and shut my mouth. No sign of
Ralf, the trapper reports.

Day 14: Chris Knott invites us to Kathy Swenson's
house to exercise the dogs. Swenson lives just outside
of Fairbanks in Two Rivers, the dog mushing capital
of Alaska -- and therefore, of the world. A vast
network of trails crisscrosses the countryside. While
we're waiting for Ralf, we will mush on Baseline
Trail, which goes clear across North America to
Newfoundland.

I climb into Knott's sled. We've got two 9-month-old
pups in our team. They don't know how to pull yet
and trot along, trip over their own feet, get tangled.
Knott says we'll just keep going; they need to learn.

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Finally, it is my turn to mush alone. My lesson is:
Dogs have a sense of humor. As soon as I hop on the
sled runners, the dogs seem to sense,
LIGHTWEIGHT! The lead dog, Harley, has just run
half of the Quest and is a veteran of two Iditarods.
You'd think he'd be resting on his laurels, but instead
he's hauling butt up a short but steep hill. The sled
reaches the crest and the dogs halt. I'm left teetering
on the peak like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
Harley looks over his shoulder and I swear there's a
glint in his eye. A pause, and he takes off like a bat
out of hell, the sled careening headlong down the hill.
I chant the musher's mantra: "Don't let go of the
sled." A corner! I squat low on the sled runners and
lean into the curve. Recovering, I stand upright to see
Harley slow to a trot. He turns to glance at me with
what I imagine is a wicked smile. All right, I admit, it
was kind of funny.

In today's small taste of mushing, I began to
understand the mushers' love of the trail. I keep
replaying the day, feeling Harley give one leg, then
another, to my hand and the harness. I hear the dogs'
breathing, harnesses jingling, the woosh of sled
runners. That night, I am reading "The Lost Patrol"
by Dick North. In a passage about the Canadian
Mounties, North describes life on the trail as "an
extreme sense of being -- all of the sense of sight,
smell, touch, taste and hearing are acutely brought
into play."

Day 15: Descriptions coined to describe Ralf's race
strategy have become progressively more elaborate:
"He's on a camping trip"; "he's homesteading out
there"; and finally, "he's a low pressure area moving
slowly westward." Ralf, a wiry chain-smoker, is
becoming almost legendary along the trail for his
impressive consumption of calories, polishing off two
meals in one sitting and topping it off with eight
chocolate bars and Diet Coke.

At this point, one checkpoint official we meet
reluctantly admits that he's closing down the place
and leaving a note for Ralf with instructions for
lighting a fire. Another official tells the Fairbanks
newspaper that he's discovered that Ralf was able to
improve his pace by 1 mph when he learned to light
cigarettes on the fly.

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"When he ran out of cigarettes for two days, his
speed popped up another 1 mph. Then he ran into
cigarettes again somewhere and it fell back down,"
the official laughed.

Fairbanks, Alaska, Feb. 26, 1997: Ralf Zielinski
finishes the Yukon Quest last, in 18 days, 10 hours
and 57 minutes. Everyone says he had the happiest
dog team in the race.


Laura Johnston

Laura Johnston is a writer who lives in Chicago.

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