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Breaking Trail to Canada isn't for Everyone

Fairbanks, AK - Yukon Quest Trail breakers have been hard at work for well over a month, battling blowing snow and fierce cold to get the Alaska-side trail in place.  It’s not a job for the faint of heart, and finding the right people to do it, may be the biggest challenge.

As the Yukon Quest Trail Coordinator in Alaska, Mike Reitz is tasked with breaking nearly 600 miles of trail by snowmachine between Fairbanks and the Canadian border.  He’s had the job for four years.
“It might be my 16th trip up the Yukon, so I’m pretty familiar with the trails and the river up this way," he says. 

Breaking trail along the Yukon River is by no means a walk in the park, or a snowmachine ride through the boreal forest. “Rough ice can be a challenge," says Reitz, "because you’re out there with a sledgehammer and Pulaski and ice chisels and sometimes ice chisels and just chainsaws just carving your way through jumble ice trying to make a crossing and then you’re fighting deep snow in the back sloughs and it takes a wear and tear on machines and on people.”  The highest points on the trail are known for strong winds that all but leave the summits snow free.   And even down low, a stiff wind blows along the Yukon River. “It doesn’t matter how big of a trail we put in and how much we pack it, there’s so much snow on the Yukon and so little traffic out on it that the snow just blows and drifts," he says.  "A ten mile an hour wind fills in the trail just as fast as we can put it in.”

Reitz has spent long hours marking and breaking trail with the help of only one or two other people.  By the time dog teams cross the border coming from Whitehorse, he’s made three or four passes along the race course.  “It starts early and by the time it’s done, I’ve spent about a month on my snow machine and I’m ready to park it for a while," he smiles.

Except for Reitz, most of the trail breakers volunteer for the job.  Many of them have done it for years.  But Reitz says their equipment is outdated, and they are getting too old to battle the weather. “It’s always hard to get new people interested in it," he says.  "There were a lot more trappers on the river 20 years ago than there are today and now with the cost of machines high and the cost of gas high and the cost of time high, it’s much harder to find people who can take the time off and do this trail work," says Reitz.

Trails once frequented by trappers are left unbroken and old timers are trading a romp in the woods for an afternoon lounging next to a warm woodstove.  With fewer people who know their way around Reitz’s job is becoming more solitary. “After a long cold dark day, as a friend in Circle likes to say, a Shangri La is a cold shack with a dirt floor and you go in and start that fire and that’s the best thing in the world at the time and at that place,” he laughs.

This year, there are multiple reports of thick jumble ice all along Alaska’s Upper Yukon River.  Reitz says in those places, strong winds and heavy snow can actually help the trail. “Somewhere between 30 miles downriver of Eagle to 50 miles upriver of eagle was really nasty ice at freeze up, but I think of the jumble ice as a big sluice box out there and as the snow blows and drifts it settles in all the crevices and that makes our job a lot easier.”

Low snow early in the winter kept Reitz at home, but he says heavy snowfall over the last month helped smooth out the trail. The Canadian Rangers are still out breaking their half of the Yukon Quest trail.  Conditions on that side remain a mystery, but early-season snowfall has many people speculating about a smooth run during the first half of the race.

*This story was produced with help from Andy Bassich, who homesteads 12 miles downriver from Eagle, AK.