Past Quest champs have new attitudes

Hans Gatt has a new mushing philosophy. At least as far as the Yukon Quest is concerned. The three-time champion has signed up again for the…

Hans Gatt has a new mushing philosophy. At least as far as the Yukon Quest is concerned.

The three-time champion has signed up again for the 1,600-kilometre race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, but this time he’s trying a new approach.

In 2007, the Austrian-born Gatt plans to relax on the trail and perhaps even try to have a little fun.

It was either that or retire, he said recently in his Atlin home shortly after a 56-kilometre training run.

Gatt found himself getting so competitive that his drive to win far surpassed his desire to actually enjoy what he was doing.

So now, with bountiful snow and kilometres upon kilometres of trails right out of his yard, he and his huskies are enjoying dog mushing once again.

Of course, old habits die hard, and Gatt explained that he’s not giving up on running with big boys.

He still plans to crack the top three in this year’s Quest, but if he doesn’t win, that’s just fine, he said.

“In the past, it was most important for me to win races. That was the most important thing. And that has changed somehow.

“It’s not important for me to win anymore.”

He said a few years ago, he would be so ‘insanely focused’ he wouldn’t even look up to enjoy his beautiful surroundings on the trail.

“It just took all the fun out of it,” he said. “I was just too serious.”

Changes in his personal life are what sparked the 20-year mushing veteran to lighten up a bit, he noted, adding that his age also played a factor. And, he said, this is the first time he is heading into a season relaxed and ready to enjoy the months ahead with his dogs.

After placing second to Lance Mackey last year, Gatt said he wouldn’t do the Quest in 2007, but instead focus on the 1,600-kilometre Iditarod.

However, with an increased purse of $75,000, $50,000 of which was given by the Yukon government, Gatt said he feels a little obligated to run the Quest, his favourite race, in February.

“The purse was a big issue for me,” Gatt said. “They promised it for so long and didn’t do anything about it and so, if they didn’t raise the purse, I wouldn’t have gone back to the Quest, whether I like it or not. It’s the principle of the whole thing.

“Then they raised it and, well, you can’t just bitch about something all the time and then when they fix it, not respond to it. Besides that, I just really like the Quest and it’s hard for me to stay away from it.”

He added that he’d still like to focus just on the Iditarod one of these years.

But this year, he’ll run the Sheep Mountain 150, the Copper Basin 300 in January and then of course, the two 1,600-kilometre races.

Quest and Iditarod veteran Thomas Tetz will run Gatt’s Iditarod team in the Quest 300 as well.

“It should be a better Iditarod team than I drove to Nome last year but, if you don’t focus everything on that race you can’t expect the world. I hope to be in the top 20 and that’s good enough.”

Gatt will use his A-string, a seasoned group of Quest and Iditarod finishers, for his Yukon Quest team while the Iditarod brood will be made of up younger but equally enthusiastic dogs.

“The bottom line is I’m having more fun running dogs so far than I have in the last few years.”

On the trail this year, Gatt, who has been known to jog beside his sled on long, straight stretches to keep warm and help his team, might try a tail-dragger sled. He’s been making quite a few so he thought he should actually try one in a race, whether he likes them or not, he laughed.

Despite his affection for the event, Gatt has offered his own brand of constructive criticism for years, and this year is no different.

After the debacle on Eagle Summit, where mushers were airlifted off the mountain and forced to scratch, some against their will, Gatt is reiterating his proposal to bypass the summit entirely.

Simply re-route the Quest trail around Eagle Summit, he said.

Allowing dog teams to come down the steep side of Eagle Summit is “absolutely irresponsible,” Gatt said. “I don’t care how many markers they put up, you can’t change the landscape. There are ways around it.

“I voice this opinion every year I run the Quest, but it obviously goes in one ear and out the other.

“I would have hoped that after what happened last year, they would consider changing the route completely, but instead they put more markers up, which is fine, but it’s not going to slow your team down.”

Even though he’s never crashed coming down the steepest parts of the 1,095-metre mountain, he gets nervous every time, he said.

“It spreads a lot of fear around Quest mushers. It’s a weird feeling.”

Quest veteran and past champion Frank Turner agreed.

Turner has climbed and descended the mountain many times in his 22 Quests.

And after his son Saul was airlifted off the mountain in the 2006 race after a raging blizzard caused several competitors to become disoriented and lose the trail, the senior Turner was one of many who demanded a plan of action.

“There needs to be some parameters as to when a trail just does not make sense to take dogs over,” Turner said recently at his Muktuk Kennels in Whitehorse.

“We’re not indestructible and this is not a demolition derby. Even though they market the race as the toughest race, there are limits.”

Turner has come out of retirement to run the Quest again in 2007 after taking a year off to watch his son Saul compete in the 2006 race.

Saul was one of several mushers forced to scratch at the Mile 101 dog drop.

Like Gatt, Turner is just out for a bit of enjoyment this season rather than focusing on the competition side of the race.

“You learn different lessons as you go along and I guess the lesson these days is never to say never,” Turner said.

“When I quit a couple years ago, I was getting tired and I just wasn’t enjoying it like I used to.”

For him, there was no point in continuing on if he wasn’t enjoying it.

When he announced his retirement after the 2005 race, he considered entering territorial politics.

“But I just realized over the summer, when we were showing some tourists a video on the Quest … that this would be something I would enjoy doing again,” Turner said.

“I’ve always enjoyed running the race; it was the training that tired me out so I thought I would start training before I committed to doing the Quest and I’m just having a blast.”

This year, he’ll be competing against himself, he said.

His team includes many smaller females as opposed to the big males he usually fills his Quest team with. However, compared to most, his dogs are larger than the average distance musher’s.

“I don’t think I’m going to have a really fast team, but it’ll be OK. What I like about my dogs is that they’re pretty tough,” Turner said, adding that his team ranges in age from two to eight years old.

Both former champs agreed that the Quest has come a long way in recent years, but there are still some major issues to tackle.

Eagle Summit is just one.

Another is money.

Pulling off such a huge and diverse event is a challenge, no question, but without financial help from a major sponsor, the event is constantly struggling to stay afloat.

Obviously this has been an issue for some time, and, the fatter purse is a step in the right direction, but the government support is going to run out at some point, said Gatt.

“They really haven’t done anything to raise the purse out of their own efforts, as far as sponsorship goes,” Gatt said.

“I’m glad that, after 10 or 11 years of escalating costs, the board appreciates that to have teams in the race they’re going to have to support more generally to make it feasible,” added Turner.

“But at the same time, I’m really disappointed that there haven’t been any enhancements to the vet program. Twenty years ago, the vet program budget was probably four times what it is now and if you can’t get a sponsor for the vet program, I don’t know what you can get a sponsor for.”

“That the race has been able to continue reflects, not the efforts at the board level, but the efforts at the community level and it would be nice if everybody was on the same page.”