The jumble ice on the Yukon River is the worst Wayne Hall’s seen it.
“The ice looks like a bunch of small cabins rolled all over the place,” said the Eagle, Alaska, musher.
The Yukon Quest trail usually runs down the river, but this year, no one’s sure what’s going to happen.
“I know there’s jumble ice out there, but there’s no point worrying about it until I get there,” said three-time race champ Hans Gatt.
The Quest is a double-edged sword, said local musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who will be running the Iditarod a week after finishing the Quest.
“I feel lucky and fortunate to be running it, but I dread not sleeping for a month and there’s the river with its jumble ice.”
The ice conditions were a hot topic at the Quest’s Meet the Mushers on Wednesday night at Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre.
“Wayne says it’s bad and that’s his backyard,” added Schnuelle.
Hall trains on American Summit during freeze up, and once the ice is in, he usually runs his dog team 11 kilometres downriver to get home.
This year, it was impossible.
“My son and handler had to come and help me cut a trail across the river, then we had to cut a six-mile land trail to get home,” he said.
“So saying the jumble ice is bad is not overstating it – it’s really bad.”
Hall’s wife Scarlet tried to tone it down.
“You don’t want to scare the mushers,” she said.
“Well, that was a month ago,” said Hall, trying to be reassuring.
“It’s changed some, but it’s never really changed good.”
Last year, there wasn’t a trail into Eagle through the jumble ice at all.
A family emergency and cold temperatures kept the usual trailbreakers at home and four-time champ Lance Mackey got ahead of the last-minute trailbreakers, winding his way through jumble ice with holes that could swallow dogs.
The Quest took a beating from mushers who brought the issue up at race meetings, and even at the finish banquet.
This year, for the first time, the race organization hired Quest veteran John Schandelmeier to put in the trail on the Alaskan side. The Canadian Rangers put in the Canadian section of trail.
“I feel better with Schandelmeier out there,” said Tagish musher Michelle Phillips.
“I know there’s jumble ice, but at least this time there’ll be a trail through it – with trail markers.”
But even Schandelmeier is worried.
“He says we’ll have to go very slow – with a capital V E R Y,” said Hall.
“And if John says that, you’d better know it’s not good, because he’s used to running bush trails.”
“The trappers and locals say it’s the worst they’ve seen, and I thought last year was bad,” added Dave Dalton, who’s running his 19th Quest.
Dalton, as president of the Finisher’s Club, was responsible for getting Schandelmeier on board.
The Finisher’s Club is also focusing on the purse.
“We’re still $50,000 short,” said Dalton.
The club has a bank account set up for purse donations.
“Some people dropped the ball this year,” said Dalton, discussing the missing purse money.
The Yukon side of the race didn’t hold its annual raffle, despite having an all-inclusive two-person Jamaica trip donated.
And the raffle on the Alaska side was late, said Dalton. “The crab feed didn’t happen either,” he said.
The economic downturn might have had something to do with it, he added. “But Alaska’s economy is still strong.”
Despite purse problems and ice fears, the race has 29 mushers slotted to leave the start chute on Saturday. That’s five more than last year.
British rookie Mark Sleightholme is heading out first, followed by Whitehorse veteran Kyla Boivin. Leaving the chute last is Quebec rookie Normand Casavant.
Half of the field is rookies.
“I’ve been waiting to do this race since I was 17,” said 33-year-old rookie musher Luc Tweddell.
Four years ago, he moved to the territory from Quebec to turn his dream into a reality.
“I’ve been thinking about it since I was a kid,” added 27-year-old Iris Wood Sutton, from Alaska.
“Now it’s just hurry up and wait for the start.”
As far as distance races go, the Quest is the one to do, said 32-year-old Colleen Robertia, also from Alaska.
“The name says it all – it’s a quest on so many levels – on a personal level, on the inside and on the outside.”
Robertia’s biggest concern is her dogs.
“They’ve never done such a long race,” she said.
“I’ve gone through some tough things in my life, so I know I’m tough. But I’m also caring for 14 animals who love me unconditionally and trust me.
“I want to make sure we finish, not as a team, but as a family.”
The only thing Jamaican rookie Newton Marshal is worried about is open water.
“The cold is OK, as long as there’s not water,” he said with a grin.
Brent Sass, who hauled in fifth last year, isn’t worried about anything.
“My biggest focus is keeping dogs,” he said.
But last year the dogs weren’t the problem.
Sass got sick in the second part of the race and it was his dogs who pulled him through.
“This year, I’m going to take care of myself, to make sure I’m not the weak link,” he said. Sass has packed healthier food and plans on keeping cleaner -“to keep the nastiness out of my system,” he said.
Japanese musher Yuka Honda, who’s “tried to forget about sled dogs,” is back for another try as well.
In 2006, she was airlifted off Eagle Summit with a bunch of mushers and dogs in one of the worst storms that race has seen. And in 2007, she ended up scratching in Dawson.
“I want to finish with 14 happy dogs,” she said.
“I don’t want to drop any dogs.”
Last year’s Quest 300 winner, Josh Cadzow is also signed up for the race.
The 21-year old from Fort Yukon, Alaska, impressed Annie Lake musher Hugh Neff so much he promised to pay Cadzow’s entry fee if he raced the Quest this year.
“And Hugh paid it,” said Cadzow.
Cadzow, who refers to the daunting 1,123-metre Eagle Summit as “just another little hill” isn’t too worried about the Quest.
“Maybe I’m worried about the guy sitting next to me,” he said with a laugh, pointing at four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser.
It’s Buser’s first time running the Quest.
“Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis,” he said with a grin.
“Maybe I think there’ll be a shiny red sports car at the end.”
The real reason is it’s new country and a new challenge, he added.
“It’s be arrogant to say I think I’ll win, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I expect to make a little money,” said Buser.
It’s exciting having Buser in the race, said Gatt. “It’s too bad Lance (Mackey) didn’t make it.”
Mackey’s little brother Jason is planning to take his spot this year.
“With Lance not being here, he wasn’t afraid to give me all the details,” said Jason.
“There are lots of things, little tricks, he wouldn’t have told me, had he been racing.
“But now, he wants to see me where he is.
“I can never repeat what Lance has done,” added Jason.
“But I do have a reputation to uphold.”
The Quest starts at 11 a.m. in front of the White Pass building on Saturday.
Contact Genesee Keevil at