The route is chosen, the dogs are yowling in their kennels and the 2023 Yukon Quest races are just awaiting the signal to start.
Ahead of 11 a.m. starts on Feb. 11, there are 22 mushers registered for the race’s three distances. Seven mushers and their teams are set to go for the 450-mile race to Dawson City, six will set off for Pelly Crossing on the 250-mile race and nine mushers are bound for Braeburn, 100 miles from Whitehorse.
The start list shows an almost entirely Canadian field of mushers with a majority of Yukoners, but some of the teams come from as far away as Quebec and Manitoba. One team out of Alaska and one from New Hampshire are also in the field.
This will be the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic that the Yukon Quest will return to Dawson City, the halfway point of its traditional Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska route. The race was cancelled in 2021 and in 2022 it was run separately with distances of no longer than 350 miles on opposite sides of the Canada/U.S. border.
Although the pandemic-related border restrictions that led to the split races last February have now fallen, mushers still won’t cross the border due to a spring 2022 disagreement between the Alaskan and Yukon organizers. The dispute over mandatory rest periods for dog teams led to a break in cooperation that has yet to be mended. The Alaskan organizers held races of their own earlier this month.
The trail from Whitehorse to Dawson roughly retraces dog-sled routes that once served as the only viable winter travel routes in the gold rush era. The mushers taking on the full 450-mile trail to Dawson will first strike off northwest from Whitehorse tracing an overland route to Braeburn before heading due north for Carmacks. From there the route roughly traces the course of the Yukon River before turning north to Pelly Crossing. The final and most-remote legs of the race will see the dog teams run west along the Pelly River before rejoining the Yukon River on its northward course. The teams will negotiate one last mountain range before descending into Dawson City.
The trail has been painstakingly broken in by the Canadian Rangers over more than a month.
Yukon Quest operations manager John Hopkins-Hill said the trail is complete and mushers would receive a thorough briefing on its condition from the Rangers before setting out. Despite an unusually warm January, Hopkins-Hill said trail conditions present only the usual challenges that experienced Quest mushers have come to expect. He said overflow, water trapped beneath snow pack on top of frozen lakes and streams, doesn’t seem to be serious this year.
Environment Canada’s forecast for start day in Whitehorse calls for a balmy -1 C daytime high with clouds and a chance of fresh snowfall overnight.
Hopkins-Hill said the warmer weather and corresponding softer trail conditions may slow teams down somewhat if temperatures approach the freezing mark. In response to this, he said some mushers may stagger their rest breaks to keep their teams running at night when the trail is firmest.
The finish-line forecast for the middle of next week in Dawson City shows more seasonable daytime highs of -16 C to -18 C.
The race departs from Shipyards Park in downtown Whitehorse. Even the fastest teams are not expected to reach Dawson until the early-morning hours of Feb. 15.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org