February is Yukon Quest time, when one of the Internationally recognized long-distance sled dog races is held each year. Often called “the Quest”, the race travels 1000 miles through isolated country, over 4 different mountain ranges, along frozen rivers and unbroken trail, between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks.
The Yukon Quest organizers state a high commitment to canine care and mushing traditions. The trail itself is follows along old mail, trade and trapping routes that were the main infrastructure during the gold rush era (roughly late 1800’s through 1930’s). The race lasts form 10 to 16 days, depending on weather conditions. Mushers are required to carry food supplies and equipment throughout the race, much like in the “old days” when mushing was used to transport cargo along the same trail.
The race is also unique for alternating which city it starts from. In even number years, the race starts from Fairbanks. In odd years, from Whitehorse. This gives each city opportunities to have differing hosting events, being at the start or the finish line.
Sled dogs have unique training needs, much as any long-distance endurance athlete. To ensure the best care, the dogs are monitored by the Yukon Quest veterinary program. Prior to the race, each musher must have their dogs examined by an approved veterinarian to ensure that each dog who starts the race is up to the challenge. At each of the checkpoints along the way, the dogs are then checked over by veterinarians again to be certain that the dogs are up to continuing. The checkpoint veterinarians also provide care to help the musher and dogs in their goal in completing the race. Only dogs that can pass are allowed to continue. With this high level of care, fewer dogs need to drop out of the race. The Yukon Quest is known as being one of the most challenging sled dog races.
With a challenging trail cutting though remote wilderness for 1000 miles, the Quest is not always the most popular with mushers. The Quest champion will take home $35,000, and each musher who finishes the race takes home at least $1,000, in recognition of the 1000 mile long race. The prize level is smaller than the Iditaord race, yet some mushers prefer the Quest for the quiet trail and smaller media coverage.
There are still several mushers who run the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, which takes place in March. The trails, conditions, media coverage, and purse size are very different between the two races. Success in one race does not translate to success in the other. Even if a musher has one the Iditarod, their first run in the Yukon Quest will have them classified as a rookie.