Yukon Quest Preview
(Fairbanks, AK) Three top-5 Iditarod mushers are signed up for this year’s Yukon Quest Alaska 550-mile race in a small but competitive field.
Among the headliners are last year’s Iditarod champion Brent Sass and Nic Petit, who’s posted two mid-distance victories already this year. Along with seven other teams, they’ll be vying for a share of a $100,000 prize purse this year.
The race also features a new distance and route with its first-ever stop in Nenana.
“I think everybody's excited,” said Cathy Dimon, who took over as executive director of the Quest in July.
Underlying the excitement is uncertainty. For 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 the last two years because of COVID border restrictions.
This year, it faces amore 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.
Canadian organizers originally proposed more than doubling rest requirements for teams along the trail, something they said would help keep dogs healthy. American organizers balked, claiming the idea violated the spirit of the Quest and arguing that mushers could make the best decisions for their dogs through consultation with race veterinarians.
It’s unclear if there’s a path forward for reconciliation, though both the Canadian and American sides say they’re open to talking.
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 had 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 completed the 1,000-mile distance, it also had a record-low number of starters.
Weber said that just keeping the race happening 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.
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 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.
Following up on those rule-changes, the Canadian board of the Yukon Quest proposed more than doubling the previous rest requirement for the 1,000-mile race 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.
In may during discussions, the Alaska side pulled out, claiming that there were irreconcilable differences between the boards.
“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.)
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 the data weren’t good enough 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.
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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, there data 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.
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 6-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-5 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 four Iditarod top-5 finishers. The $100,000 purse for winners pays heavily to the top-5 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.
Headlining the event is last year’s Iditarod champion Brent Sass, who trains out of a homestead north of Fairbanks on the Elliot Highway.
Fresh off a 300-mile race in Bethel and a 12-hour drive from Anchorage, Sass said his team is ready to race on a new course that includes a new piece of trail to Nenana and back 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.”
Unlike last year, Sass hasn’t won any races coming into this year’s Quest. Running a team of younger dogs, he finished in the middle of the pack at the Kuskokwim 300. With his race team -- a similar team to his Quest dogs -- he finished 12 minutes behind Nic Petit in the Copper Basin 300.
Petit is in Fairbanks for his first Quest. He said he was attracted by the 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.”
Petit, of Big Lake, is fresh off a win in the Willow 300 last week.
Also contending is Wade Marrs who’s 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 550-mile race.
“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 race was originally scheduled to travel from Fairbanks to Circle, and from Circle to Eagle on the Yukon River before cutting back south for a finish in Tok. Uneven freezing on the Yukon forced organizers to reroute the course, which now runs from Fairbanks to Circle and back, then along the Tanana River to Nenana and back.
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. ###