When the mushers in the 2018 Yukon Quest start their journey from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, it’ll all be possible thanks to the work of trailbreakers.
On the Canadian side of the border, those trail breakers are the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.
Responsible for more than 885 kilometres of trail, work starts early and runs right through the race for the Canadian Rangers.
“It’s like a long journey — one step at a time,” said Sgt. John Mitchell.
The trail is broken down into four areas centred on the communities of Dawson City, Pelly Crossing, Carmacks and Whitehorse. Two teams are launched from each community — one headed north and one headed south — meaning more than 30 people are working on the trail at any given time.
Beyond the geographic divisions, the operation is divided again into four phases.
Mitchell said the first phase involves creating a rough trail.
“The initial trail breaking is like what we would be expected to do for the Canadian Forces if we work with them,” said Mitchell. “We would get out and we would break the trail out as fast as we could.”
This year, Mitchell said the Canadian Rangers got through 85 per cent of the trail in just 35 hours.
Phase two wrapped up earlier this week and involved finishing the maintenance on the trail and rerouting the trail around problem areas.
It’s up to the trailbreakers to deal with specific trail problems.
“If we have to put a bridge over a creek or we have to divert around thin ice or something like that, it’s dealt with by people on the trail,” said Mitchell.
A bigger decision this year was not to run the race along the Trans Canada Trail south of Braeburn.
“With the warm temperatures, the thaw and melt, and the low snow conditions, the area going into the Little River valley was just too darn dangerous,” said Mitchell. “It was hills with nothing but glare ice on it, so it was an accident just waiting for somebody to come along.”
This year the race will go to Braeburn and then double back to Coghlan Lake, head south to Lake Laberge and across — along the original path of the Yukon Quest Trail — before reaching the Yukon River and continuing to the Takhini River and on to Whitehorse.
The other major change this year is the relocation of the dog yard from the Yukon River Campground across the river from Dawson City to the start of Bonanza Creek Road. Open water on the Yukon River at Dawson City made the usual dog yard inaccessible.
The next phase involves a full check of the trail. Mitchell will join a group of Rangers in Whitehorse and inspect the last few miles of the trail.
“The first thing we’re going to do is check out the entrance into town or the route into town from the Takhini (River) to the finish line. That area has always given us problems on the Yukon River with the ice and the water conditions there,” said Mitchell.
The four rangers will then head north all the way to Dawson City, planning to arrive just in time to brief the mushers on trail conditions during their mandatory layover.
When mushers leave Dawson City, they’ll have a group of Rangers leading the way — one from each community.
“We need 24-hour capabilities,” said Mitchell. “If we get into an area in the dark or in bad conditions, we’ve got the local knowledge to get us through.”
Although the race’s start is just days away, Mitchell said the trail is still not set in stone.
“The only thing constant about the trail is change,” said Mitchell. “We have to keep on top of it, adjust to those changes on the trail.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org