Yukon Quest sled dog race faces an uncertain future

A musher seen in profile going down a river
Matt Hall’s team approaches the finish of the 2022 Yukon Quest 350-mile race (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Four top-five Iditarod mushers are signed up for this weekend’s Yukon Quest Alaska 550-mile race in a small but competitive field.

The race starts in Fairbanks on Saturday. It’s the first one since the organization’s Alaska and Canada sides split, ending the 1,000-mile international version of the sled dog race that’s been run almost every year since 1984 — at least for now.

“I think everybody’s excited,” said Cathy Dimon, who took over as executive director of the Alaska Quest in July. 

This year there are two mid-distance Yukon Quests: one 550-mile race in Alaska that starts Saturday morning in downtown Fairbanks, and another 450-mile race in Canada that starts a week later. 

Among the headliners of the Alaska race are last year’s Iditarod champion Brent Sass and Nic Petit, who’s posted two mid-distance victories already this year.

“The Yukon Quest Alaska has done an amazing job,” said four-time Quest champ Brent Sass, “There’s a $100,000 purse on this race. That’s huge.”

Uncertainty underlies excitement

This is the third straight year the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile cross-border race will not be held. The race was scrapped for separate shorter races in 2022 and 2021 because of COVID border restrictions. 

But this year, it faces a more existential problem: in May, the Alaska board of directors announced it was pulling out of organizing with its Canadian counterparts over a dispute about mandatory rest requirements. 

The Yukon Quest Alaska board’s president Mark Weber said that he’s been in discussions with Canadian counterparts about a post-race meeting to try to reconcile differences. 

But he said there’s a bigger challenge. 

“I think the bigger problem is mushing in general and what the prospects are of supporting two 1,000-mile races and Alaska within a one month period,” he said, referring to the Iditarod, which starts the first weekend of March. This year’s Iditarod has an all-time low number of teams registered. 

Quest enrollment has been down as well. Last year, just four people finished the Alaska side’s marquee 350-mile event. The last time the Quest held its 1,000-mile race, in 2020, it also had a record-low number of teams.

Weber said that just having a race next year may require rethinking of distance and race format. 

“Maybe we both go to Dawson and back or something, or maybe we meet in the middle or something. I’m not sure,” he said. 

a musher prepares food outside in a cooler
A musher prepares food for his team in Circle during the 2021 Yukon Quest 300 miler. (Lex Treinen/KUAC)

Debate over rest requirements

The last few years, Quest organizers in Alaska put on shorter races using portions of the historic Quest trail. In 2021, the first year the pandemic forced the Quest to split up, organizers required mushers take an unprecedented 22 hours of rest during a 300-mile race. 

Mushers expressed mixed feelings about the new rules, but said they were willing to adapt. 

Last year, organizers in Alaska tried another innovation. There were still relatively high rest requirements — 20 hours over the course of 350 miles — but teams could log their rest on the trail instead of in checkpoints. 

Mushers called it a “game-changer” and expressed enthusiasm about the rules. 

Then, the Canadian board of the Yukon Quest proposed a change for the next 1,000 mile race: more than doubling the amount of mandatory rest, to 120 hours. During negotiations, Canadian organizers backed off that proposal and ultimately proposed letting the Alaska side run the 1,000-mile race with the same rest requirements as in 2020.

Still, the Alaska side pulled out in May claiming that there were irreconcilable differences beyond resting rules. 

“We were disappointed in the spring that they chose to unilaterally break off negotiations,” said John Hopkins-Hill, operations manager for Yukon Quest Canada in a recent interview. “I think the biggest thing is that there’s broken trust on both sides.”

He said the Canadian side’s push for more rest requirements was based on a concern for dog health. 

A handful of dogs have died during the race, though it’s not clear whether rest requirements would have prevented those deaths. In 2018, a dog of former Quest champion Hugh Neff died during the race of aspiration pneumonia. Veterinarians later cited a “lack of dog care” by Neff, and claimed the dog had lost a significant amount of weight during the 2018 race. (Neff returned to the Iditarod last year, but was forced to scratch over concerns about his dogs’ health and he was denied entry to this year’s Iditarod.)

Quest head veterinarian Nina Hansen said during the last two years, vets tried to analyze data about dog health based on veterinary supplies used, but ultimately didn’t have enough information for a reliable study. 

This year, Alaska’s Yukon Quest rules back off its high rest requirements — or the option of logging rest on trail. The current requirements are among the lowest of the major mid- and long-distance races in Alaska: just 14 hours mandatory rest. 

Hansen said she’s not concerned about the lower requirements, since it still gives plenty of time for veterinarians to check on dog teams at checkpoints. She said that discussions over the proper amount of rest have been ongoing in veterinary circles, but so far, the studies aren’t good enough. 

Alaska organizers — and some mushers — say adding required rest is a misguided solution for dog care. 

“We feel that our mushers are capable of making their own decisions regarding dog care, in conjunction with our race managers, our race marshals and our vets,” said Weber, the Alaska board’s president.

a photo of a man in a black jacket
Brent Sass at his camp in Fairbanks. Sass said that longer rest requirements in checkpoints force teams to do longer, harder runs that can be dangerous for dog health. (Lex Treinen/KUAC) 

Four-time Quest champion Brent Sass agrees. 

“If they put all this mandatory rest and put all this stuff in there to control the dog mushers and how they run their dogs, that’s what leads to problems,” said Sass. “All mushers want the best for their dogs.”

Sass said that requiring too much rest at checkpoints pressures mushers to drive their teams longer distances at higher speeds to get to the next checkpoint instead of running their own schedule, which might involve resting on trail. 

The Canadian Yukon Quest 450-mile race allows almost all of its 34 hours of required rest to be taken on the trail. Only a six-hour stop in one of the early race checkpoints is required. The rest can be taken on trail, and will be logged by mushers and corroborated by GPS SPOT trackers. That’s the same system used by the Alaska organizers last year. 

“I think that the way the Canadian race has been set up is the future of dog mushing,” said Willow musher Mille Porsild, a top-five Iditarod finisher who opted to compete in the Canadian Yukon Quest 450-mile competition this year. 

She said that allowing rest on trail gives her team the chance to treat the competition like a training run. 

“They nail how many hours I would want to rest in that distance,” she said.

Many Alaska mushers said they’d support allowing rest to be taken on trail using GPS trackers. Cody Strathe, a musher representative on the Alaska Quest board in 2022, said the idea was proposed with support of mushers he talked to, but organizers ultimately decided the SPOT trackers weren’t reliable enough to ensure that mushers were taking rest when they said. 

“If there’s a good way, a good technology that can record that properly, then I think it’s better for the dogs, better for the sport, better all around,” said Strathe. “But we just don’t have that technology in our hands at the moment.”

This year’s Yukon Quest Alaska

Despite the challenges, this year’s Yukon Quest Alaska 550-mile race boasts some top dog-mushing names, including three top-five Iditarod finishers Sass, Petit, and Wade Marrs. 

The race also features its first-ever stop in Nenana.

Sass, who trains out of a homestead north of Fairbanks on the Elliot Highway, said his team is ready to tackle that new piece of trail on the Tanana River. 

“I think a lot of the race is going to happen in that last 150 miles,” he said.  “It’ll show what kind of dog team you bring to that last 150 miles for the race.”

Sass won the full 1,000-mile Quest three times, and also won last year’s 350-mile Quest plus notched his first Iditarod victory.

But this year, he hasn’t won any races yet. 

He recently got back from Bethel’s Kuskokwim 300, flying back to Anchorage and making the 12 hour drive to Fairbanks. He ran a younger team of dogs in the K300 and finished in the middle of the pack. 

Earlier in the season, in the Copper Basin 300, he and his  race team — a similar team to his Quest dogs — finished 12 minutes behind Petit. 

Petit is in Fairbanks for his first Quest. He trains in Big Lake and is fresh off a win in the Willow 300 last week. He said he was drawn to the Quest because of its prize purse and the adventure over Eagle and Rosebud Summits. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing what these big hills are all about,” he said. “I hope it’s not as bad as it is sometimes.”

A musher goes over a rocky summit
Second place finisher Deke Naaktgeboren mushes over Eagle Summit, which was unusually free of snow this year. The low snow led to broken sled runners for some mushers (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Marrs is back racing in Alaska after a year off in which he moved to Wisconsin. After a string of second-place finishes in mid-distance races in the Midwest last year, he said he’s eager to try out his young team in the Quest. 

“It’s a fast dog team of mostly three year olds,” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how they handle these longer runs.”

The teams will jockey for the biggest slice of the Quest’s $100,000 prize purse. The purse pays heavily to the top-five finishers, with the winner taking home $40,000. That’s the second highest payout to the top team in Alaska this year, behind the Iditarod.

The Yukon Quest 550 starts at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Morris Thompson Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks. 

Check out this year’s route, which now runs from Fairbanks to Circle and back, then along the Tanana River to Nenana and back due to uneven freezing on the Yukon River.

“In that last 150 miles, you’ll see what kind of dog team you brought,” said Iditarod Champion Brent Sass about the run on the Tanana.

The race, along with 300- and 80-mile races, will begin at the Thompson Visitor Center in Downtown Fairbanks at 11 a.m. on Saturday, February 4. 

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