Breaking trail for the Yukon Quest

With many of the Yukon Quest mushers checking in at Dawson over the past few days, the trails on the Canadian side of the course are starting to see their first bit of action.

With many of the Yukon Quest mushers checking in at Dawson over the past few days, the trails on the Canadian side of the course are starting to see their first bit of action.

The 800 kilometres of Canadian trail leads through pine forests, over windswept mountains and across frozen rivers. Every inch of it needed to be scoured before the 23 mushers from this year’s race travel across it.

Creating a smooth trail from Fairbanks through to Whitehorse takes a lot of manpower, and fulfilling that task each year are the territory’s Canadian Rangers. This year, 120 Rangers from 11 communities across the Yukon (including Atlin) were out in full force wielding machetes and chainsaws, working to make the Canadian half of the epic race trail log-free and dog-friendly.

Overseeing this vast operation is Major Craig Volstad, the commanding officer of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. Based in Yellowknife, Maj. Volstad is in charge of all Rangers north of 60, and recently came west to the Yukon to help with operation Tay Naydan, a training exercise that dovetails into the clearing of the Quest trail.

“This year we’re quite excited about it because it’s our largest training event in Yukon in many years,” Maj. Volstad said. “And to combine it with the Yukon Quest has great synergy.”

Pelly Crossing was the base camp for Operation Tay Naydan and saw Rangers practise marksmanship, search and rescue techniques and first aid. Rangers from Watson Lake to Dawson City and everywhere in between made the trek to Pelly Crossing last weekend.

While en route, Rangers coming in from outlying communities made the first pass at clearing this year’s Quest trail, and while doing so, practised survival skills by winter camping along the way, said Maj. Volstad.

“To be a Ranger you have to be good on the land and able to survive on the land.”

Maj. Volstad recalls during last year’s exercise the temperature dropping to bone-chilling levels while out on the trail.

“When I was out there I think it was between minus 40 and minus 45 – without windchill,” he said.

This year, the weather was a bit more co-operative.

To get the trail into shape for the race, the first pass sees Rangers on snowmobiles trample any brush that has clogged the way since last year. Fallen trees are the biggest challenge for the teams, says Maj. Volstad. Rangers carry machetes and small chainsaws to take out the larger obstacles blocking the path.

It takes about three days for Rangers coming from Dawson and Whitehorse to make their way to Pelly Crossing, roughly halfway between the two. A second pass is done when crews return from Pelly Crossing, and the final check is done just ahead of the first mushers.

A crucial part of the effort is former Quest musher and current Canadian Ranger John “Mitch” Mitchell. Before the Rangers were involved with trail-clearing for the race, Mitchell had been volunteering with the Quest for several years to help get the route in order each season. When preparing for a training exercise with the Rangers in 1991, Mitchell suggested the two endeavours be merged.

Now, two decades later, Mitchell has vast experience coordinating the teams of Rangers that fan out over the trail. He sets the timeline for the operation and shuffles around crews as necessary, depending on the state of the path.

Warm weather and a lack of snowfall across the territory have prompted concerns over the quality of the trail, he said, and some smaller deviations needed to be made. For instance, jumble ice downriver from Dawson combined with little snow meant an alternate route had to be found.

“Although we can get the trail through there, it’s too dangerous for dogs,” Mitchell said. “The last thing we want is for a dog to break a leg.”

“The only thing constant about the trail is change,” he said.

Having the substantial muscle of the Rangers behind the immense task of clearing an 800-kilometre path through remote Yukon bush is welcomed by Quest organizers, but it’s also an important event circled on the calendars of Ranger brass.

“This is something that we’ve been doing for over 30 years,” says Maj. Volstad.

“(There is) a huge sense of pride that the Canadian Rangers are contributing to such an important event to this region of the country.”

Contact Joel Krahn at

joel.krahn@yukon-news.com

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