Some fear dog-sledding is dead in the territory where it was born. Others say it’s just finding its feet.
By Eva Holland
As Brian Wilmshurst’s team threw themselves forward, as Wilmshurst made a final walk up and down the line and kissed his wife, Melissa, goodbye, it took a half-dozen volunteers to hold the sled back. They planted their feet in the snow and leaned hard, balancing their weight against the dogs. Wilmshurst, a Dawson City-based musher, was the first racer to line his team up at the 2013 Yukon Quest start line. Along the chain-link fence that marked the first section of the trail, a crowd of hundreds waited eagerly. Their cheers were drowned out by the dogs.
It had had been a long grey winter in Whitehorse, but on that Saturday in early February, the skies cleared and the sun shone down as 26 mushers and their teams launched out of the start chute in downtown Shipyards Park. This year marked the 30th running of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race, the Yukon’s premiere mushing event. The territory shares the race with Alaska – the trail runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, or Fairbanks to Whitehorse in alternate years. But despite the name, and the crowd at the start line, it’s a competition that’s lately been dominated by outsiders. Whitehorse resident Hans Gatt won the Quest in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2010, and his fellow Yukoner, Sebastian Schnuelle, took the prize in 2009. But now Gatt and Schnuelle have both retired, and in 2012 the top Yukon finisher, Yuka Honda, placed 15th. This year, Wilmshurst was one of only five Yukon mushers to even enter the race, and despite all the fanfare, none were expected to be contenders.
Meanwhile, off the Quest trail, an influx of modern adventure sports keeps a new generation of young, active Yukoners busy. These days, kite-skiers and backcountry snowboarders dot the Yukon’s winter landscape much more frequently than dog teams.
Should Yukoners be worried? Does a decline in Yukoners’ fortunes in the Quest – the top of the mushing pyramid – spell trouble for the sport itself? After all, if there’s one contest the North can claim as its own, it’s dog sledding. But in a changing Yukon, is there still room for such an old-school pursuit? Where does mushing go from here?
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In the Yukon, running dogs is as traditional as trapping, hunting and fishing; for centuries, dog teams have been an integral part of life on the land. Like the Iditarod, in Alaska, or Dawson City’s Percy deWolfe Memorial Mail Race, both of which commemorate mushers and dog teams from the past, the Yukon Quest pays homage to that tradition. The race traces the trails blazed by stampeders flocking to the region’s various gold booms and prospecting hubs – Dawson, Forty Mile, Circle City – and follows the Yukon River, the territory’s ancient highway, for much of its route.
In the beginning, the Quest wasn’t just a nod to the territory’s dog-powered past; it was a seamless part of it. “In the early days of the Quest,” says Quest historian and author John Firth, who covered the early races as a local beat reporter for the Whitehorse Star, “a lot of the mushers were coming out of the bush tradition.” But according to Firth, 30 years ago, an Iditarod veteran touched off the beginning of the change. “It wasn’t until Larry Smith rolled into the ball game in the early 1980s and said that he could run the Iditarod in under 10 days, and then proceeded to try to do that,” says Firth. “He never did win it, but what he did do was push a lot of other people to try to become more professional as mushers.”
The first ever Yukoner to win the Quest, 1986 champion Bruce Johnson, was an example of the shift. Johnson learned to mush on a trapline, says Firth, but he “moved from being one of the bush guys, which is where they all started, to become very much a professional dog musher.”
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Hours after this year’s Quest start, Braeburn Lodge was packed. The barrel stove in the corner was roaring, and every table was dense with media, volunteers, handlers, veterinarians and race officials. The staff picked their way through the maze of parkas, laptop cords and camera gear, bearing burgers and cinnamon buns the size of dinner plates. Just 100 kilometres from Whitehorse, Braeburn was the first checkpoint on the Yukon Quest trail; somewhere out in the dark Northern night the first teams were approaching the lodge.
Sebastian Schnuelle sat at a table in the corner farthest from the stove. Schnuelle, the 2009 Quest champion and a six-time finisher, retired from racing after the 2011 event. He now serves as a race judge and “armchair musher,” providing online commentary to the race’s thousands of Facebook fans.
Schnuelle, a German-born Yukoner, agrees that the sport is in flux. The rest of “the German gang” – four-time champ Hans Gatt and a few others – have also retired. The core gang of lifelong Yukon mushers, the ones who used to come back and race year after year, has faded away, and these days, more of the folks who attempt the Quest are one-offs: extreme athletes who move from one challenge to the next. Schnuelle describes them as “the dreamers, the adventurers,” and says many of them don’t have the wilderness skills that the old-time mushers, who came out of the trapline tradition, possessed almost inherently. “People are not as bush savvy as they were a couple years ago,” he says. He figures if the race is going to thrive, it’s up to former racers like himself to help those dreamers learn the ropes, to sign them up as handlers and train them as racers. “If you want to keep it alive,” he says, “we have to take them on.”
Still, while the territory’s mushing scene is changing, Schnuelle says it’s not necessarily fading. It’s cyclical, he says. The YQ 300, the Quest’s 300-mile sibling race, is stocked with locals. “The fact that there are 11 Yukon teams in the 300 definitely shows there’s an interest,” he says. And the local small-time racing league in Whitehorse, the Copper Haul Twister, is thriving. Eventually, says Schnuelle, those mushers will “gravitate to the longer races.”
So will the territory produce another Yukon Quest champ anytime soon? “Oh, for sure,” says Schnuelle. “It’s a couple of years away, probably.” He figures Ed Hopkins and Michelle Phillips, a mushing couple from Tagish, could be the Yukon’s next serious contenders. Hopkins ran the 1,000-mile race this year, and Phillips the 300. Phillips, a five-time Quest finisher, hasn’t run the full-length race in a couple of years, but her best-ever finish was 4th place, back in ’08. Hopkins, meanwhile, is also a five-time finisher, with a 2005 personal best of 8th place. “Ed and Michelle are knocking on the door,” says Schnuelle. “They have the skills. They just have to go for it.”
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Four days later, in a back room at the Dawson City checkpoint – the town’s visitors centre, converted during Quest time to an operational hub – Marie-Sylvestre Belanger sat down on the hard, thinly carpeted floor for a break. Belanger is the Quest’s Yukon executive director – in one of the event’s many quirks, the Quest has both a Yukon-based E.D. and board of directors, and a parallel Alaskan E.D. and board. For her, as she makes her way from checkpoint to checkpoint in a rented SUV, the race is a two-week blur of phone calls and emails and trouble-shooting and bad coffee.
Belanger acknowledges the challenges of running a major sporting event with two parallel power structures on opposite sides of an international border. And beyond the organizational challenges, there are money problems, too. The lead-up to last year’s race included some well-publicized financial troubles: The global recession, combined with the presence of the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse, meant the competition for sponsorship was tight. “Sponsorship will always be difficult,” says Belanger bluntly. “We’re not the cancer society – it’s a sled-dog race.” This year, the Quest has trimmed $100,000 from its operating budget, including $50,000 from what had been a $150,000 purse for the winners, to ride out the storm. “Without jeopardizing the race,” says Belanger, “we felt we could do this.”
The rising cost of mushing – gas prices alone have changed the game for Quest participants – combined with the shrinking winnings have also helped drive the transition from lifelong mushers to Schnuelle’s dreamers. A long-term musher with a large kennel needs that infusion of cash, but a one-off adventure-seeker, someone who might otherwise spend their energy and funds on, say, attempting to summit Everest (or to sail around the world, as one of this year’s Quest rookies tried to do a few years back), worries less about sustainability.
Still, Belanger sees the Quest’s 30th anniversary as the beginning of an upswing. While cross-border tensions may have played a role in the past, “over the last four years I’ve seen the two boards work better and better together.” After all, she jokes, the race is three decades old this year – so maybe the Quest is maturing. (Schnuelle, as someone who experienced the race management as a musher, agrees: “I would say definitely management on both sides has changed for the better.”)
Belanger says community support is solid, too – “We had to turn down volunteers” – and while she notes that Alaska’s big population is always likely to produce more Quest mushers, she sees a rejuvenated interest from the Yukon’s mushing community. “With the amount of rookies we had in the main race and the YQ 300 this year,” she says, “I think there’s a lot more renewal for the sport than I would have anticipated a year or two ago.”
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Schnuelle’s words at Braeburn that first night were prescient. On a dark, cold night in Pelly Crossing, after the 1,000-mile mushers had rolled through, Michelle Phillips roared into the checkpoint at full speed to win the YQ 300 by little more than the length of a dog team: She finished just eight seconds ahead of the second-place musher, Aliy Zirkle, an Alaskan who remains the only woman ever to win the full-length Yukon Quest. Zirkle, the 2000 champion, also finished second in the past two Iditarods – beating her, even in a middle-distance race, suggests that Phillips certainly has what it takes to run with the best the sport can throw at her.
A little over a week later, Yukoners got a few more pleasant surprises. In Fairbanks, the endpoint of the full-length Quest, Whitehorse-based musher Normand Casavant chased the pack leaders all the way to the end, and wound up placing seventh; he was the top Yukon racer, and he also took home the Quest’s annual award for best dog care. Another Yukoner, rookie Susan Rogan, finished in 10th. Ed Hopkins was right behind her in 11th; Michelle Phillips, recovered from her own race, was waiting for him at the finish line. Crispin Studer and Brian Wilmshurst crossed the line, respectively, in 13th and 17th – and though six of the 26 starters failed to complete the Quest, all five Yukon mushers made it to the end.
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On a quiet block in downtown Whitehorse, tucked in beside the Alpine Bakery, there’s a small, fenced-in bungalow. A curved wooden sign hangs over the entrance; it reads “Duffy’s Pets,” and as you approach the building you see a smaller, paper sign in the window: “Tanzilla Harness Supply.” Inside, there’s a room full of squawking birds, a quiet, dim room lined with fish-filled aquariums, and, off to one side, a room filled entirely with dog booties, harnesses and lengths of brightly coloured nylon rope. This is where the Yukon’s mushing community comes to get outfitted for the trail.
In an office at the back of the building, a few days after the Yukon Quest wrapped up, owner Hans Oettli sat in a swiveling chair. Oettli, who’s lived in the Yukon for 31 years and has been running dogs for even longer, has been involved with the Yukon Quest from its inception. He attempted the race twice, and he’s been a board member, a race judge, and was the race marshal from 2010 to 2012. Basically, he’s done “everything under the sun,” he says. In the Yukon in recent years, he says, “I think mushing had a little bit of a down [period].” But, “it seems to be coming back again; there’s more people running dogs.”
Still, Oettli worries about its future, particularly as the price of running dogs and operating a kennel continues to rise. Mushing, he says, “has become a rich man’s sport.” Like the Quest itself, mushers are often cash-strapped; like the Quest, it may need the outsiders, the dreamers and dabblers, to keep it going.
Oettli thinks the Quest needs to promote itself as being less about the race and more about the adventure – that it needs to accommodate the newcomers if it wants to thrive. After all, the changing face of Yukon mushing parallels the broader demographic changes in the territory, with an influx of adventurous souls from down south and overseas, seeking a wild Northern playground. The question is whether they’ll choose the dog trails, or go elsewhere.
Sebastian Schnuelle, the former champ, agrees. Mushing is “by no means a modern sport, it’s based on traditions,” he says. “And traditions are important to some people.” Luckily for mushing, he points out, it’s many of those same people who are drawn to the North to begin with.