It’s been a rough summer for the Yukon Quest, or at least one assumes it has.
After the June announcement of separate races for Alaska and the Yukon, speculation and cautious optimism have been the mood for those on the periphery of the mushing world.
While a 1,000-mile race was out of the question, surely the Yukon Quest 300 routes would be the obvious answer for both sides.
Things on the Alaskan side are, admittedly, a bit easier.
The trail begins in Fairbanks, has two checkpoints that are essentially purpose-built for the race and two more checkpoints in Central, Alaska, and Circle, Alaska, respectively.
Assuming the folks in Central and Circle are OK with it, not much would be needed in terms of outside cooperation.
In Canada, things are more complicated yet also much more exciting.
A Yukon Quest 300 that begins in Whitehorse typically runs through Braeburn and Carmacks before ending in Pelly Crossing.
Another option — one that it appears the Canadian board decided was the only option — was a race from Dawson City to Whitehorse. From Dawson, mushers would have raced to Pelly Crossing and run the 300 course in reverse.
Exactly how close the Quest board came to finalizing the details for a race is unknown — the Quest somehow manages to be as opaque and noncommittal as the most seasoned government communications mercenaries — but it is safe to assume they were never anywhere near being able to announce a race.
The story goes the board couldn’t get the OK from some of the First Nations along the route and sponsorships are down thanks to COVID-19, meaning the race’s Sept. 3 cancellation was inevitable.
With COVID-19 protocols changing in the Yukon, albeit it slowly, it doesn’t seem that outrageous for communities to ask the race to respect the travel and self-isolation requirements for travellers and to decline to give an unconditional OK for a race nearly six months away.
Faced with the option of planning a race that may need tweaking later or figuring out a different race route entirely, the board chose to pack up and call it a day.
What’s doubly frustrating for race fans, observers and mushers is the seeming lack of consultation with mushers.
On the surface it appears mushers weren’t asked about the race. From reaching out to a few local mushers for reaction to the decision, it seems fair to say there was no organized outreach, polling, or opinion gathering undertaken.
And if there was, it certainly didn’t prove successful.
“Hi Musher, we’re in a bit of a bind — what would it take to get you on the starting line of a mid-distance race with the Quest name this year?”
With the Yukon executive director leaving her position at the end of August, it begs the question what impact that had on race planning. Regardless of the reasons, the timing could not have been worse.
If permissions to travel on traditional territories were the issue, why not try a 200-mile race from Whitehorse to Braeburn and back? Surely restricting the race to the traditional territories of a smaller number of First Nations would make finding an agreement significantly easier.
Make Braeburn a mandatory checkpoint of some sort and you not only get to hold a race that bears the Quest name and legacy, but one that allows those who wouldn’t consider a 1,000-mile race to compete.
More importantly, it could serve as a qualifier for future 1,000-mile races. Last year, the Quest decided that Lori and Louve Tweddell were not only unable to race the 1,000 but also unable to transfer to the 300.
At the time it was a heavily scrutinized decision that didn’t make a lot of sense to big-picture folks who wanted to grow the race and the sport. Now, perhaps it should have been the canary in the coal mine that there was a disconnect between the race organizers and everybody else.
Here in the Yukon, we’re treated to a handful of mid-distance races outside the Quest. The Granger Grind, Silver Sled and Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race all manage to draw solid turnouts despite the competition for entries from the Quest and Iditarod.
Why, then, couldn’t the Quest have found a time slot that worked and run a similar race of 200 to 300 miles?
There are a number of mushers, including plenty of Quest veterans, who it is fair to say would have willingly come out of retirement to run a mid-distance race.
It could have had the double bonus of not only padding the field’s numbers, but also the race’s credibility.
Any prize pool would have been much smaller, but so too would have been costs for mushers, the number of volunteers required and the length of trail that would need breaking.
The race was founded as a way to pay tribute to the Yukon River and all the travellers who made the trek into the Klondike for the 1898 gold rush and on into the interior of Alaska for the subsequent discoveries of gold.
It markets itself now as being about dog care and self-reliance — that Yukon spirit so many in the territory are proud to identify with.
Going out with a whimper like this seems to fly in the face of that perseverance, but not all is lost.
Days after the announcement of the Canadian cancellation, work is already underway within the mushing community to plan a mid-distance race. Posts about a possible race have attracted plenty of interest, including offers to volunteer and ideas on possible routes.
Mushers are a resilient bunch, that much is clear. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone to see a mid-distance race for mushers, by mushers — not unlike what the Quest was founded on — materialize in the Yukon this winter.
What impact that race could have in the future — acknowledging a one-off race is all hypothetical at this point — is very difficult to predict.
So far the Quest, in both Alaska and the Yukon, has been unambiguous that the race will be back in 2022 in all its former glory.
Without a willingness to adapt and compromise, that too could prove to be just words.