Whitehorse, YK - This year’s Yukon Quest roster is dominated by veterans, but some of them haven’t run the race since the mid- 1990’s. They say they're feeling like experienced rookies, but they all have a reason to finish.
It’s been a decade since Darren Lee lined out his team to run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The Chistochina musher was forced scratch from the race in 2002 and 2003. “This just seemed to be the year to do it. The 30thQuest," nods Lee. "The last time I did it was the 20th Quest and my daughter who’s almost 16 was five at the time and picked bib number one., so I have led the Quest.”
This year Lee is determined to finish. For the past ten years, he’s run his dogs in races like the Kobuk 440 out of Kotzebue and the Copper Basin 300 that starts in Glenallen. He says he’s learned from the mistakes that took him out of the race in past years. “The first year, I broke my brake bar the first night of the race," he says. "So, I bought a new brake bar this last week and put it on my sled and I also have an extra brake bar on my sled. The second year I only had 12 dogs and that’s what I owned and that’s what I came with. So, I have a total of 21 dogs, but basically I tried to increase my pool of dogs to draw from.”
It’s been a while since Tagish musher Ed Hopkins has run the 1000 mile Yukon Quest. He originally signed up to run this year’s Quest 300, but at the last minute, he made the switch to the 1000 mile race.
“I’ve done the 300 so many times," smiles Hopkins. "Usually when I leave stepping stone and I make the loop to come back to Pelly, you’re going up to Scroggie Creek Road and you gotta turn right to go to Pelly, and there’s a sign that says straight to Dawson and I just think ‘you know, I’d really like to go to Dawson.’ This year, I’m just gonna go straight instead of taking the right.” Hopkins ran the 1000 mile Quest six times between 1993 and 2005. Despite the eight year break, he’s sure the Canadian side of the trail will be good. As far as the trail across the border… “It’ll be Alaskan. Rough and Rugged!” He laughs out loud. Hopkins says his team, a mix of young dogs led by an experienced 10 year old male named Zappa, can handle the challenge. But Swiss musher Crispin Studer isn’t as sure. He says his dogs are definitely faster than the team he ran back in 2004. “The dogs that I had then were totally different," he says, in a thick accent. "They were much bigger and slower, less maintenance. Now I have racing dogs, so they’re gonna be more maintenance. I’m gonna have to take much better care of them because they’re gonna run till they crash, so I’m gonna have to manage them much more.” Studer, who trains in Carcross, says he feels like a Rookie all over again. “I didn’t know what I was doing nine years ago. I think I know more now, but I don’t know if I know what I’m doing totally," he says. "Like I’m sure I’m gonna do a lot of mistakes, hopefully not too many.”
Fairbanks musher Ed Abrahamson admits to making mistakes when he last ran the Quest in 1997 and 1999, but the last 14 years, he admits he’s both older and wiser. “The first time I ran the race, I took it for granted a bit, juts a big adventure, selfish event and now I realize it’s an absolute privilege to be here.” Abrahamson says his dogs are the main reason he’s returning to the race. “I’ve raised all these dogs and I take a great deal of pride in that," he says, "and to be able to go out in this environment is certainly what I’m looking forward to and maybe some unfinished business you know, just to have a really nice clean race.”
15 veteran mushers will run their teams alongside 11 rookies in this year’s Yukon Quest. The race starts Saturday.