WHAT: The Yukon Quest
Fairbanks, Alaska is home to permafrost, the northern lights, mind-bending extremes of temperature and daylight hours, and over 50,000 fun-loving souls. The city at the top of the world is also a hotbed of beer, boredom, and barroom banter. All things considered, it’s no surprise that Fairbanks is famed for some of the wildest barbets in human history. Four decades ago, one such bet spawned the world’s toughest dog sled race. The Yukon Quest. An Alaskan dog sled race where mushers compete to get from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon in one piece.
The story goes like this: In April 1983, four Alaskan dog mushers named LeRoy Shank, Roger Williams, Ron Rosser, and William “Willy” Lipps sat around a table in Fairbanks’ Bullseye Saloon. Unable to agree on which dog sled race ranked as the world’s toughest, they decided to create it themselves. They envisioned an endurance race that would stretch the limits of dog and man to breaking point. Moreover, it must pay homage to the spirit of adventure and dogged determination that forged the soul of the great white North.
They named the race the “Yukon Quest” to commemorate the unforgiving route along the Yukon river braved by gold prospectors and mail carriers in the early 1900s. To reflect this, the race had to be long and follow a historical trail over harsh terrain through ice, snow, and subzero temperatures. Likewise, no help from outside parties was permitted. Instead, they would need skill, speed, and bush knowledge to complete the 1,000-mile trek from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon. In February 1984, twenty-six teams left Fairbanks. Twelve days later, many teams had dropped out. Meanwhile, race founder Sonny Lindner battled on to become the first Yukon Quest champion. Decades after it began, the Yukon quest is still considered the “most difficult sled dog race in the world” and even the “toughest race in the world.”
Yukon Quest mushers come from all walks of life and various professions. Coal miners, taxi drivers, lawyers, business people, and journalists have appeared on the starting line. However, don’t think you can just rock up with your pet husky and a Walmart Toboggan. All mushers must be over 18 years of age and have previously completed at least one sled-dog race. Dog teams must consist of a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 14 animals. Canine well-being is a founding principle of the quest. Organizers and mushers understand that their animals are the heart and soul of this Alaskan dog sled race. Dogs must be treated and cared for well. As a result, whips are out. Similarly, race organizers reject applications from anyone with a history of animal abuse.
Sleds must be capable of safely traversing a 1000 mile route. They must be able to carry food, blankets, and first aid equipment for both man and canine. As well as materials, flares, and navigation equipment, mushers also need to consider the possibility of having to haul injured or fatigued dogs. Once you’ve put this checklist together, contact organizers for an application form. Remember you’ll be crossing from Alaska into Canada so don’t forget your passport.
The Yukon Quest sled dog race runs every February between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon. The route follows the Yukon river and travels over four mountains. Rosebud Summit, Eagle Summit, American Summit, and King Solomon’s Dome.
- The Yukon Quest is held in February. Expect short solar days and long, dark nights, when temperatures have been known to drop below −100°F (−73°C). Consequently, frostbite and hypothermia are common.
- Mushers can expect to encounter moose, wolves, and bears.
- Around one in 3 teams never make the finish line. In 2006, a huge storm forced an emergency helicopter evacuation of seven teams.
- The top 15 finishers split the prize money.
- It’s rumored that the closing ceremony in Fairbanks is the stuff of party legend.