Yukon Quest organizations break up

A dog in a harness leaps up into the air
Musher Jennifer LaBar’s dog leaps into the air at the start of the 350-mile Yukon Quest this winter. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The relationship between the Alaska and Canadian organizations that have run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race since 1984 has fallen apart.

The breakdown began with a Canadian proposal earlier this spring to dramatically increase the amount of time mushers are required to rest their dogs along the 1,000-mile trail between Fairbanks and Whitehorse.

Mark Weber, Yukon Quest board vice president in Alaska, said the Canadians wanted a total of five days of rest.

“That’s 120 hours of mandatory rest and right now there was 52,” he said.

Weber said requiring that much rest would fundamentally change the Yukon Quest from the original vision of a wilderness race, in which a good portion of the rest taken along the trail is left up to mushers to decide on.

“So I guess our point was we didn’t want to make it into a stage race, you know, where every checkpoint had 10 to 12 hours,” he said. “It was just double of what it was, and it was an unusual proposal that we never expected to see. It was just drastic.”           

Alaska officials rejected the idea, as well as a Canadian follow-up proposal that Alaska organize next year’s 1,000-mile international event with existing rules, while better tracking dog teams’ rest and veterinary care along the trail. Both sides blame the other for negotiations breaking down.    

“When we rejected the alternative proposal, they said, ‘Well then we see no choice but to have a dissolution of the corporation, and we’ll both move our separate ways,'” said Weber.

John Hopkins-Hill, the Yukon Quest’s operations manager in Canada, said he was surprised that Alaska officials didn’t agree with the proposals.

“We were blindsided to find that the Alaskans felt that was the end of it and that they were unilaterally breaking up the partnership,” he said.

He said the sport of dog mushing is changing, and he questioned hanging on to existing dog care rules.     

“The idea that the rules from 1984 or the document that govern this race are untouchable or divine in some way,” he said.

Hopkins-Hill said the Canada side’s plan for next winter is to run three shorter races on the Quest trail between Whitehorse and Dawson City.

“Gonna keep doin’ what we do, and we’re going to try to hold the best races we can here,” he said.

On the Alaska side, Weber called the situation devastating but emphasized that there will be some sort of Alaska Yukon Quest race or races in 2023.  

“We’re going to continue on with the traditions as set out by the Yukon Quest, which is supporting a wilderness dog mushing event,” he said.

Next year could look similar to the past two years when pandemic restrictions resulted in shorter Quest races held on either side of the Alcan border. So far nothing legally binding has occurred relative to the breakup of the race organizations, leaving open the possibility of a reconciliation.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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