The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest was canceled for the second year straight, but organizers are hoping to experiment on a shortened 350-mile course this year by allowing mushers to take their mandatory rest on the trail, instead of in checkpoints.
“It’s a game changer,” said Yukon musher Rob Cooke, a 1,000-mile Quest finisher. “It means you can have a much better strategy, and it can be much better for the dogs.”
Over the course of the race — which starts in downtown Fairbanks and loops through Central on the Steese Highway before returning to Fairbanks — teams are required to take 20 hours of rest.
10 hours of that has to be at checkpoints — 4 hours in Central on their first pass through, and 6 hours at the penultimate checkpoint in Two Rivers — but the other 10 can be out of trail.
Mushers will carry two GPS trackers that will corroborate notes logged in a vet book.
There’s no clearly defined penalty for forgetting to log the hours, but race director Doug Grilliot says mushers will likely forfeit the rest if they don’t log it. It’s another thing mushers have to remember, but Grilliot says the response has been positive.
“There’s a lot of things out there that are the mushers’ responsibility to do so, to make this work, they’re going to have to be very active participants in this,” said Grilliot.
Mushers say allowing rest out on the trail will help for a few reasons. The 350-mile race has a 70-mile from Pleasant Valley up and over 3,600-foot Rosebud Summit to Mile 101 of the Steese Highway. Last year, when all the required rest needed to be taken on trail, top teams plowed through without stopping. This year, teams could break down that run into more manageable legs.
“It just allows us to camp where we need to camp,” said defending Quest 1,000-mile champ Brent Sass, who is signed up for this year’s 350-miler. “It’ll add some strategy involved in the race, so you don’t really know what everyone’s doing all the time.”
Cooke says there are other reasons why mushers might choose to forego a checkpoint.
“You don’t have the distractions, you don’t have the noise, you don’t have people milling around,” he said.
The race was scheduled to run a new course starting in Tok, running through Circle, and finishing in Fairbanks. But trail conditions that Grilliot called “impassable” thwarted that plan.
Earlier in the year, the board of directors made the decision to scrap the cross-border 1,000-mile race due to coronavirus concerns. That turned out to be the right decision, Grilliot says, because of restrictions on group gatherings in the Yukon that would have made events like the start banquet and trail report meetings impossible.
Just seven mushers are signed up for the 350-miles this year.
It’s a small field, but Grilliot says it also makes experiments like the rest requirement easier. He’s been working with Trackleaders, which provides GPS tracking for the Quest, to improve accuracy of the units.
The goal, Grilliot said, is to have it ready for the 1,000 mile race that he hopes can take place next year.
“Both sides are just bore-sighted on 2023,” he said.