There were many tense mushers at the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race start banquet on Thursday night.
And it wasn’t pre-race jitters.
At the musher’s meeting, they’d learned there was no snow on Rosebud Summit — just bare rock and shale.
“I’ve been up there with six feet of snow and it’s insane,” said Whitehorse musher Kyla Boivin.
Once on the summit, mushers run about eight kilometres on a six-metre ridge with steep drops on either side. The ridge trail climbs and falls over outcroppings of rock.
“It’s hairy, scary up and down, and if there’s no snow for the brake, there’s not much you can do for the dogs,” said Boivin.
“Breaking a sled or injuring five or six dogs is not a certainty, but it’s a likely possibility.”
Rather than sending teams over that trail, race officials are considering trucking the dogs from Chena Hot Springs checkpoint to Mile 101 dog drop, roughly 65 kilometres.
“If I have trouble on Rosebud and have to scratch, then I’m never running this race again,” said Whitehorse rookie Didier Moggia.
“It’s too much of an investment for me, my wife, dogs and sponsors to have to go home at Mile 101.”
“If we run over Rosebud, I’m never running the race again either — not from this direction,” she said.
Before Thursday’s musher’s meeting, veteran mushers were invited to a private gathering to discuss trucking dogs around Rosebud.
Eight mushers showed up. And six wanted dogs trucked.
“I want to protect the dogs,” said Tagish veteran Michelle Phillips, during the banquet.
“That can be a pretty rough section.”
It’s especially dangerous when the team is still “rippin’, snorting” to go, she said.
“When you start a race and they’re fresh and you’re hitting glaciers and going down hills with no snow, it’s scary — it’s not necessary.
“We’re here for the dogs and we’ve got to take care of them. When you’re going down a trail without snow, what’s going to happen?
“You can’t slow down and brake on shale rock.”
The dogs know when a musher’s out of control, said Boivin.
“They start trying to slow down and there’s a good chance of breaking legs.”
It’s best to err on the side of caution, said ‘87 Quest champ Bill Cotter, who is racing this year.
“I haven’t seen the trail, so it’s all secondhand information, but no snow on those steep downhills is crazy.”
Dawsonite Peter Ledwidge, whose wife Ann is running in his place after his back acted up, also wants the dogs trucked.
“I’ve wiped out on some of those drops, and if there’s no snow to cushion it, the musher and the dogs could get hurt, and the sled could get trashed,” said Ledwidge, who has sat on the Quest trail committee.
But Dawson veteran Cor Guimond wants to take his team over Rosebud.
“It’s part of the race and I think it should be in — this race starts under all kinds of weather conditions and that’s all part of it.”
“It’s the Quest,” said Annie Lake musher Hugh Neff.
“But hopefully they’ll make the right call and choose what’s best for the dogs,” he added.
Guimond was one of two mushers who supported running the trail as is, during the veteran mushers meeting.
“I really can’t see how the dogs could get all that hurt if there’s a lack of snow,” he said.
“It’s more the mushers being worried about getting hurt, but I was outnumbered.”
A younger musher first voiced concern, said Guimond.
And then some older mushers backed that up, he said.
“So, maybe the young are too young and the old are too old.
“I support the original route, the original plans and the original ideas, but that changed a long time ago.”
Sonny Lindner, who won the first Yukon Quest in ‘84, is “out looking at the trail right now,” added Guimond.
The decision to truck dogs or run over Rosebud rests with Doug Grilliot, who was appointed race marshal several weeks ago after two previous marshals quit earlier this year.
“There have been no decisions so far,” said Grilliot during the banquet.
“We’ve got people out there looking at the trail and we’re waiting for their final reports.”
A decision will be made Friday, he said.
“It’s no secret we haven’t had much snow in this part of the country.
“And we knew we’d be making some decisions in the last week.”
With the cold snap, and still no snow, Rosebud “went to the top of the list,” said Grilliot.
“If it was flat it would be a different story, but it’s not flat up there.
“And three to five miles can be a long way if it’s barren.”
Eagle Summit, which has been hazardous in the past, has lots of snow this year, he added.
The Quest trucked dogs before, said Boivin.
“In ‘03 they trucked us from Braeburn to Carmacks because there wasn’t enough snow and there were logs and stumps sticking out.
“That’s much less scary than what we’re talking about now, and that was 100 miles.”
“It’s an easy decision in the end,” said Grilliot. “We’ll do what’s best for the dogs and mushers.”
In past races, “people have sometimes been a little robotic about just doing it,” said veteran Frank Turner.
“But that’s changed.
“The race has no interest in sending us on a trail that’s unsuited for dogs.”
Reigning champ Lance Mackey isn’t so sure.
“There’s a lot of people that won’t sign up for this race again until they have people making confident decisions to not send us over stuff like that,” he said.
Once officials start making better decisions, they might get more people signing up, he said.
“Because nobody wants to go out there and injure themselves or their dogs, and that is ultimately the biggest concern — the dogs.”
On Saturday Moggia from Whitehorse/France will be first out of the Chena River start chute.
“I’m not comfortable with that,” he told the crowd, in a thick accent.
“That is just terrible for me.”