Jeff and I volunteered to help out with The Yukon Quest again this year. The Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile International sled dog race that goes from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon, switching directions each year, roughly following the Yukon River.
Jeff helped setup the chute on the road, with the signs and fencing, and helped organize the team’s drop bags in advance of the team’s arrivals.
We like staffing the overnight shifts in the checkpoints. It’s a fun time – always something happening, and it is fun even when it isn’t.
We worked overnight on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, checking teams in as they arrived, and checking them out when their mandatory 36 hour rest was complete.
Then, when we weren’t catching up on our sleep, we watched the race with Dad, photographing some of the teams when they came in, and meeting other volunteers.
We were on our first overnight shift when the race leader, Brent Sass rolled into town at 5:43am on Thursday. We had expected the teams to arrive a day earlier, but with all the snow we have in Alaska and the Yukon this winter, I think that slowed the race down a bit.
The checkpoint was quiet and calm until around 3am when people were getting eager for his arrival. Brent’s support team arrived, some media, photographers, the race’s official PR team, spouses and team members from other teams, and the customs officials.
Everyone starts milling around, sipping coffee and tea, obsessively checking the laptops the race logistics team provides to see the latest location and speed update from the trackers on the competitor’s sleds.
We wait behind the desk, a desk usually used as the tourist information desk during the summer months, selling race merchandise, answering phone calls, passing along messages to race officials and vets, and handlers as they arrive.
When Brent was about 2 miles out, at about 5:30am, everyone started making their way outside to wait. In the dark, waiting for a dog team’s arrival, means staring off into the black night, waiting to see the bright light of the musher’s headlamp.
Brent Sass actually had a nice bright light on his sled! Here is the arrival of his team.
Jeff and I checked Brent in. That meant that when he arrived at the line in Dawson, we let the Canadian Customs officials check his passport, and then we made sure he had all the necessary items on his sled (cooker, fuel, axe, snowshoes, etc). We recorded the official time when his lead dog’s nose crossed the line and collected the SPOT trackers from his sled so the race logistics team could install fresh batteries before they are reinstalled on the sled when the teams depart.
Then we stepped out of the chute and let the Brent talk to his awaiting family, friends, handlers, thank his dog team, and then have interviews with the press.
We called in the official time and arrival information to race headquarters in Fairbanks, and then I went back out to watch a bit as a spectator. Even Dad was up and waiting for Brent’s arrival at this early hour! He took most of these shots.
Brent had a wheel dog that flopped on his side instantly after they crossed the line, and lay motionless. I was looking to see if he was still breathing! Brent was laughing saying that dog (wish I caught the dog’s name!) does that if they run 5 miles or 50!
Sure enough, when he gave the team the command to head out, he jumped up right away! ha! Gave a few people a scare!
After coming into Dawson, the mushers take their team across the frozen river to the campground, where their handlers have prepared a camp, a tent, and fresh straw for the dogs to bed down in for a rest.
Michelle Phillips and her team were just an hour or so behind Brent, so Dad stayed at the check point and we got to check in another team before our shift ended!
Michelle was all smiles when she came in.
As night became morning, Jeff and I went to bed. Dad went down to the ice bridge crossing to watch the next couple of teams coming in, Cody Strathe and Allan Moore.
After watching Cody on his approach into town, Dad rushed up to the line to get a few more shots of him and his team.
Allan Moore came in soon after, so Dad rushed back down to the frozen river to get his approach, all the while, wishing the sun would come out for his photos!
Dad and I both went down to the river to watch Richie Beattie and Rob Cooke’s arrivals into town. We were gearing up at home and suddenly got a notice that the PR team was already going live with Richie Beattie’s arrival, so we zoomed down to the river wondering how he sped up so much.
We made it in time and watched the team coming up the river.
I said “Welcome!” as he went by and he gave me a bit of a weird reaction but I couldn’t make out what he said.
The next team was just a few minutes behind, so we started watching them come in. Dad said, “I think there are two people on that sled!”
Can’t be…. Wait! I see two too!
As they get closer, a snowmobile zooms up behind us, rather aggressively, and stops. While I didn’t recognize him at the time, without his official parka on, it was Peter Reuter, the head race marshal. He looked in a panic and said a team came in without a musher.
Huh? There was a guy on that last sled!
As they came closer, we could see it was two mushers. Richie Beattie looked shook up and shouted to Peter, asking where his dogs were! Peter said they are up ahead and were okay. Beattie jumped off of Rob Cooke’s sled and jumped on the snowmobile with Peter to head up to the line. I heard him tell Peter that he thought he fell asleep and fell off the sled!
We went up to the line to find out what was going on!
As we pieced together from other people, including Lou and Gary from Sister Island who watched it all happen, the guy who brought in the team was a cross country skier. He just happened to be coming down to the river, just a mile or two from town, at the same time the team was approaching without a musher! They stopped for him. He waited a bit, surely trying to decide what to do, and then he strapped his skis to the sled and drove them into town! He was a pro!
Now when I look back, it was pretty clear it wasn’t a long distance Quest musher. He was wearing just a fleece coat, and had a backpack, and sure enough, had cross country skis on the sled! Scroll back up and look!
He came into the line with the team and was quick to shout out that they weren’t his dogs and that is when the race marshal dashed off to find him!
Fortunately, dogs and musher were all safe, and reunited. No rules were broken and the team was allowed to continue on in the race (after their mandatory 36 hour rest).
There were only 4 of us down at that river who saw the two of them come in on the same sled. How fortunate was Dad to have timed it all right to be on the front line!
We headed down to the river a couple hours later to watch Pat Noddin, a Canadian rookie, come in.
He had a dog in the sled bag, likely just catching a bit of a rest, although he looked perky and excited as they came into town!
When we went up to the line to watch the team get checked in, Dad ran into his cousin Veronica who lives here. They are the youngest and oldest cousins of their generation, so they had me take a picture to share with family back home.
Brent Sass was the first to depart, after resting the mandatory 36 hours. The light was just leaving us as he departed at 5:43pm on Friday.
The race felt really spread out this year, with teams departing before others had even arrived. One night we waited with Hugh Neff and Leroy Shank in the checkpoint as they waited for Olivia Webster, the race’s current red lantern position to arrive. Hugh, Olivia’s husband, has won the race before and Leroy Shank, her grandfather, is a co-founder of the Yukon Quest!
During the last couple of nights, I went across the river to the campground to sign out Cody Strathe, Allan Moore, Richie Beattie, Rob Cooke, and Pat Noddin. Check-out is similar to the arrival process, but much lower key with just a race official, one PR person, and the volunteer check-out team there (me and Gaby). We make sure they don’t depart until their 36 hours has elasped, to the minute, and then make sure they have their vet book signed, have 8 pairs of booties for each dog, count the number of dogs they depart with (they can drop a dog for vet care or to be handed off to their handlers), and make sure their Spot tracker is in place and flashing.
Waiting for the teams to depart, we had the presence of a remarkably bright full moon this week. It was part of the magic of these overnight shifts, even with everyone so tired and sleepless and cold, the stars were out, the moon bright, and even foxes were spotted dashing around town.
By Sunday afternoon, it was all over for Dawson’s checkpoint. Two mushers dropped out for the health of their team, and Olivia held the red lantern position, heading south to Whitehorse. The checkpoint was all packed up, banners taken down, the fence and chute disassembled, and the Visitor’s Centre building was closed and abandoned again until spring.
Just before Dad flew out this afternoon (Tuesday), Brent Sass crossed the finish line in Whitehorse in first place! Congratulations to Brent! And to Michelle who just crossed in second place!