Sam Riches – On the Quest

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samsmallIf you go by road miles, Whitehorse, Yukon is about 3,000 of them from Millbrook. Once you’re here, it feels even further. You can leave in any direction you want, but it’ll be hours before you reach the next town.  That’s in the summer. In the winter, everything stops; frozen shut.
The tundra that surrounds Whitehorse is as barren and unforgiving as any landscape you can find on earth. Depending on how far north you get, the sun barely rises above the tree line, if it rises at all. River valleys wind like snakes through snow-capped mountain ranges, passing by eroded plateaus and jagged spires of glacier. The wind cuts through anything that’s not stuffed with feathers, or lined with fur.
    Each February, the stillness of the winter is interrupted. It starts in the first week, when trucks stacked with wooden boxes ride into town. The boxes are home to the Alaskan Huskies, the dogs that spend the winter months on the run.
Mushing is a popular sport in the North, a historic sport that honours a tradition of the past. This past February, 26 sled dog teams arrived in Whitehorse. They were here for the Yukon Quest International 1,000 Mile Sled Dog Race. The toughest race on earth.
For however long it takes, the teams travel 1,000 miles north, racing across the tundra, over the White Mountains, and into central Alaska. There’s only one other race like it, the Iditarod, which stretches 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. The distance is the only similarity they share. The Quest has fewer checkpoints, passes over more mountain ranges, faces harsher weather, and rewards the winner with less money. It’s a race built on history, and that’s the reason the teams run it. Each winter, another musher, another team of dogs, earn their place in the folklore of the North. Of the 26 teams gathered at the start line in Whitehorse, 20 will reach the finish.
The teams come from all over the world, there’s Rob Cooke, a British ex-pat with a lifelong dream to run the race, there’s Markus Ingebretsen, a 21-year-old from Norway whose spent less than a year on a sled, there’s Christina Traverse, a young musher from Alberta determined to make a name for herself in the sport. And then there are the veterans. Mushers like Dave Dalton, whose running in his 25th Quest, a tie for the most ever. Or Hugh Neff, a polarizing figure known as the bad boy of the trail for drinking too much, sleeping too little and breaking the rules too often. Or Lance MacKey, the only man to ever win both the Quest and the Iditarod four times; two of those victories coming while battling cancer.
There’s a team of veterinarians, more than 30 in total, also assembled from across the world. There are checkpoint managers, logistics people, countless volunteers and the media. That’s where I come in. This is my second year reporting on the Quest, my first time came while working for a newspaper in Whitehorse, and this time on assignment with a magazine. We’ll spend the next two weeks together, traveling across some of the most isolated terrain in the North, in some of the harshest conditions.
There are 10 checkpoints in the race, and the first is the Braeburn Lodge, a log cabin roadhouse off the Alaska Highway, 100 miles north of Whitehorse. The quickest team arrives there 13 hours after leaving the starting chute, by the time the last team arrives, almost a day has passed.
    It’s another two days from there when they reach the halfway point of the race; Dawson City, the remnants of a Gold Rush town. The teams are required to take a 40-hour layover here, the mushers sleep while the handlers and vets care for the dogs. At its height, the streets of Dawson were literally paved with gold as flakes would spill from prospector’s arms and onto the ground, but then the fallout came, as it always does, and the population fell from 40,000 to just over 8,000. Now, in the winter, there are a few hundred people left.
    Aspects of the Gold Rush days remain, like the pastel colored buildings, the wooden boardwalks, and the swinging bar doors. The nightlife lingers, too; and after 500 miles in isolation, the mushers revel in it. The town’s most infamous bar, The Pit, is dug into the basement of a motel, with slanted floors and leaky ceilings. Depending on your luck, the bartender will either turn their back, or pour you a double. There’s no bouncer, no cover charge, and no limits.
    The toughest section of trail waits on the Alaskan side. The teams will follow a frozen system of riverbeds into the US, first reaching Eagle, a remote town without road access in the winter, and eventually Eagle Summit; a towering peak in the in the middle of Alaska’s White Mountains. Each year, it tosses teams aside with storms that come quickly and attack mercilessly.
    The race finishes in Fairbanks, a town of about 100,000 people in central Alaska. It was once known as the city with a heart of gold, another nod to the Gold Rush era. Now it’s a sprawling urban jungle of high rises, fast food restaurants and super markets.  
    The Quest finish draws a crowd into Fairbanks and fans line the banks of the Chena River, watching the teams crawl in. Allen Moore is the first to cross the finish line at 6:54 a.m. After losing the 2012 race to Neff by 26 seconds, the closest finish in Quest history, he’s grinning ear to ear as he arrives. He breathes heavy with relief, it’s the first 1,000 mile race he’s won in a career that’s spanned 20 years. Neff is the next team in. He shrugs off the second place finish. Ingebretsen arrives a day later, crossing the finish line just before 1 p.m., capturing sixth place. His beard is crusted in ice as he arrives and his team is still filled with energy, their tails up, howling down the river bed. Ingebretsen has slept about 10 hours in the past 10 days, and he looks it.  Hallucinations are common on the trail. In last year’s race Mackey watched a toaster follow him for thirty miles into Dawson City.  This year, a rookie musher from Whitehorse, Susie Rogan, screamed as a black wolf chased down her team, forcing them off the trail. The wolf didn’t exist, but the fear is real. “The Quest is so different than any other race,” says Jake Berkowitz, a Quest and Iditarod veteran who finishes in fourth place. “There are moments that remind you why you’re out there and they are moments that make you question why you’re doing this. Mentally, it’s an extremely difficult race.”
    The last team to arrive is Dyan Bergen, of N.W.T. It’s taken her 13 days, six hours and 24 minutes to complete the challenge. “Sorry for the wait,” she says. “I just really liked being out there.”
    The mushers will gather two nights later for a closing banquet; they’ll toast each other, the dogs and another year on the trail. Then they climb back into their trucks, and make their way home.
    In the end, I get home, too; arriving at my cabin just past 1 a.m. My breath floats in front of me as I open the door. The fire in the wood stove has long since burnt out; the water jugs have frozen shut. It’s a long way from home, here in Whitehorse, but in many ways, it’s like I never left. The mountains roll though the valleys like the doldrums, the streets move slowly and the people are kind. You’re left to your own devices, and you’re free to make a life for yourself. There’s help here if you need it, and even if you don’t.  I turn on the kettle and grab my axe, there’s wood to be chopped. In the distance, I hear a familiar howl–my neighbour five miles down the road has her own team of huskies; working dogs, raised on the trap line. The air fills with the smell of burning spruce, the other cabin’s chimneys puffing into the night. I’m 5,000 miles from Millbrook, but as the wood splinters under the weight of the axe, I feel right at home.

 

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