Fairbanks, AK - Of he 26 mushers signed up to race dog teams in this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race, 10 are rookies. They might be new to the race, but a few trained dog teams with a handful of well-known and champion long-distance mushers.
When Yukon Quest veterinarians gave Kristin Knight-Pace’s dog team the green light following their pre-race check-up, the rookie musher breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m just ready to hit the trail, “ she said. “The preparation has been exhausting and comprehensive and taken over our whole life and it seems like all we’ve been doing is preparing and preparing and I just want to be on the runners,” she said.
Knight-Pace, of Healy, both worked and trained with former Yukon Quest and Iditarod Champion Jeff King. She said she sought plenty of advice from King over the last year. “I’m pretty sure I was filling my quota of calls to Jeff,” Laughed Knight-Pace.
She said the 1000 mile race will be the longest distance she’s ever travelled with a dog team in one shot, so even though she’d like to be competitive, it’s likely she’ll hold her team back. “I’m mostly realistic,” she said. “I think part of being competitive is wanting to succeed and in order to succeed, you have to cross the finish line and in order to cross the finish line, especially for a rookie, you have to be pretty conservative.”
Knight-Pace’s plan is similar to the one Two-Rivers musher Ryne Olson is working on for her rookie Quest run. “Yeah, there are a lot of unknowns there. It’s kind of an exciting feeling,” said Olson. “I get to do something I’ve never done before. I’ve never planned for a 1000 mile race before by myself, so yeah this will be fun,” she said.
But Olson has helped plan other 1000-mile sled dog races. She used to work for defending champion Allen Moore and three-time second place Iditarod finisher Aliy Zirkle. As part of that job, Olson drove a young team to Nome in 2012. She’s also showed off a competitive edge in her mid-distance qualifying races, including last month’s Copper Basin 300 where she placed third. “It’s going to be really hard for me to take it easy on the dogs, especially when I get in the race setting I want to see what they can do. I want to see what I can do,” said Olson.
Despite her resume, Olson said she’ll also try to race conservatively, in part because many of her dogs are only two years old. “I’m hoping we’ll be square in the middle,” she said. “Definitely in the future I want to try and be up there with the front runners and just because they are so young, and while the Copper Basin was great and I am so proud of them, it’s just a totally different race and I want this to be a learning experience and a real positive experience.”
A learning experience is what Damon Tedford is looking to gain from his race. “I’m like an official rookie,” Tedford laughed. “It’s funny you should ask because when I was filling out my form for the Quest it’s like ‘how long have you been mushing?’ And I just put less then a year and I had somebody on the Facebook actually say ‘less than a year? What are you doing attempting this?’”
Tedford is an emergency room doctor from Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s running a team owned by Iditarod Champion Mitch Seavey. “‘Just mush!’ is kind of Mitch’s line,” he said. “We kind of joke around the kennel about that, but trying not to sweat the small stuff,” he said. “If the dogs are running and eating and you’re focused on looking after your dogs and not making mountains out of molehills and focused on having a good time, that’s the best advice anybody can give you,” he said.
Another rookie musher who’s received decades’ worth of mushing advice is Ray Redington Junior. He comes from mushing royalty. His grandfather is Iditarod founder, Joe Redington Senior. He’s confident his team can hold up against competitors he has faced in other races. “I think I can probably do ok I guess,” he said. “I look at the field. I race against them all the time. They ain’t any better. They just know where we’re going,” he said.
26 dog teams will go west from Whitehorse. Over the next two weeks, they’ll travel 1000 miles along an old Gold-Rush Era trail to cross the finish line in Alaska’s Golden Heart City.