Canadian Rangers Sgt. John “Mitch” Mitchell sits at a table in a small, crowded room on the second floor of the Dawson City visitor information centre. Around him, members of the media, mushers and their handlers lean in and take notes as he details the trail conditions for the next 500 miles of the Yukon Quest.
He has notes in front of him, too, but mostly he recites from memory, detailing patches of overflow and glare ice, and the distances from checkpoint to checkpoint.
He knows the trail as well as anyone. Mitchell has been building and breaking trail for the Yukon Quest since its inaugural run in 1984. A Dawsonite since 1976, he entered the race himself in 1985, after a decade and a half of running his dogs along a trapline, and when the Canadian Rangers expanded to Dawson City in 1991, he joined up. It was his idea to have the Rangers break trail for the Quest as an annual training exercise.
“They can blame that on me,” he says. “I suggested to headquarters that that would be a hell of an exercise. And that was the start of it.”
Mitchell is one of a core group of Dawsonites that have dedicated themselves to the Yukon Quest year after year: building trail, feeding the mushers and their entourages, and manning the checkpoint while the race rolls through. The town is quiet during the early months of winter, but the arrival of the Quest each February marks the start of a busier season. When the mushers blow in off the Yukon River, Dawson City begins to come out of hibernation.
Gaby Sgaga has been volunteering for the Yukon Quest for 15 years, since her first winter as a newcomer in Dawson. She started out as a shift worker, taking her turn at the desk in the visitor information centre, and doing any odd job that needed doing. In 2006, she became the checkpoint manager, a position she’s kept every winter since.
“I love dogs, so I’m totally into it,” she says, in between directing volunteer traffic at the visitors centre. “I love what these dogs achieve.”
Sgaga receives applications to volunteer at the Dawson checkpoint from Quest fans around the world – she’s had people fly in from Toronto, Ireland and Germany to pitch in. “They start contacting me in October,” she says.
But her crew also includes a solid local contingent. This year, she has 30 volunteers at her disposal – they’re responsible for plowing the snow-covered government campground in West Dawson that becomes the mushers’ home for the mandatory 36-hour layover they serve here, setting up a cabin for the veterinarians to use as a makeshift clinic nearby, and staffing both the vets’ cabin and the visitors centre checkpoint itself 24 hours a day.
In the back room of the visitors centre, a converted gold rush-era warehouse, another contingent of local volunteers keeps a food and beverage concession running around the clock.
Anna Claxton, the president of the organizing committee for Dawson’s annual Percy De Wolfe Memorial Mail Race, takes the lead here. The Percy committee provides hot meals, coffee and baked goods to the mushers, handlers, media, and other visitors who pass through the Quest checkpoint as a fundraiser for their own race. All of the food they sell is cooked and donated by local Dawsonites – Claxton estimates the number of people who help out is in the hundreds.
“People in Dawson are so good about it,” she says. “Everybody trots out their best recipes and everything is homemade.” While she has a six-page phone list of residents who bake or cook for the concession, she also coordinates a group of 10 or more volunteers who staff it each day.
Many of the Dawsonites who volunteer for the Quest run dog teams themselves. Sgaga has nine dogs -“They’re my children,” she says – while Claxton is also a recreational musher and skijorer.
As for Mitchell, he’s out of the mushing game now. Asked about his 1985 race, he laughs and says, “I found out my dogs weren’t as good as what I figured, and I found out I was a lot tougher than I figured.”
But he enjoys getting out on the trail by snowmachine each year, and coordinating the Ranger patrols that build and maintain the route, as practice for the day when they might need to break trail for the regular Canadian Forces.
Dawson has changed in the decade and a half that Sgaga has been volunteering for the race. There are more new faces in town than ever, it seems.
But it’s still a sleepy place for the first half of the winter. It’s only when the Quest teams start off, whether from Fairbanks or Whitehorse, that Dawson’s residents re-emerge to welcome the visitors.
“I like seeing volunteers come back, I love the friends I’ve made that I stay in touch with. I love the feeling of family,” says Sgaga, explaining what brings her out again each February to work around the clock at the checkpoint. “I like being a part of something bigger than me.”
Eva Holland is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer.