Five Yukon mushers are preparing for one of the most challenging races on Earth.
Whitehorse’s Susan Rogan, Whitehorse’s Normand Casavant, Tagish’s Ed Hopkins, Carcross’s Crispin Studer and Dawson City’s Brian Wilmshurst are registered to race in the 30th annual Yukon Quest next month.
The five Yukoners will be taking on 21 Outside teams in the 1,600-kilometre sled dog race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The field also includes four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks and last year’s winner, Hugh Neff from Tok, Alaska.
For Rogan, 46, the only rookie out of the Yukoners, entering the Quest was a now-or-never proposition.
“I never really thought of running it. I just realized that if I don’t run it now, I’ll probably never have another opportunity again,” said Rogan. “We’ve got the dogs, we’ve got the equipment.
“We have been going down in dog numbers. We’ve been keeping the dogs but not breeding and not acquiring dogs.
“I just thought it’s now or never and I would really like to see the trail as a musher while I still have a chance. When you have a chance like that, I think you should take it.”
Though the smart money is rarely on a first-time entry, Rogan has a big name in mushing in her corner. Rogan’s partner is four-time Quest champion Hans Gatt.
In addition to advice from Gatt, about half of Rogan’s dog team were on Gatt’s winning 2010 team.
“They have an incredible memory for the trail,” said Rogan of sled dogs.
“Before I even talked to Hans, I already did my own plan,” she added. “He’s been looking over my plans and telling me where not to be overly ambitious and, perhaps, where I can push it a bit.”
Rogan took fifth place in 2011 Yukon Quest 300 and fourth in 2009. She also placed third in the 2010 Percy DeWolfe 200.
Rogan’s team, from Gatt Kennel, is made up from dogs four to eight years old. She’s hoping for a balance between speed and experience.
“They always have to run to the speed of the slowest dog, but in a race like the Quest, you don’t want to be running really fast anyway,” said Rogan. “The eight-year-olds will be at the pace I want to be running at pretty much right from the outset, which is good because it forces me to preserve the younger dogs.”
Rogan’s aim of a steady pace is echoed by her fellow Yukoners.
Next month’s race will be Studer’s second Quest, with an 18th place finish in 2004.
Studer plans to go “much slower” this time around.
“My dogs like to run fast, which is not something you want to do in a big quest,” said the 32-year-old. “So I’m going to have to run them a bit slower and give them more rest.”
Studer and his dogs from Pika Kennels won the Carbon Hill Sled Dog Race’s 30-mile dogsled division three straight years between 2008 and 2010. He also came first in the 2011 Percy DeWolfe 200 and in the Yukon Quest 300 in 2009.
Even with that impressive resume, Studer took a lot of time deciding whether or not to enter the Quest. He signed up for the race on the very last day of registration.
“I have two kids, one and two years old, so training was pretty tough,” said Studer. “Hopefully, I have enough training.
“I started my own kennel six years ago … and all my dogs are between one and six years old. But none of them have ever done anything longer than a 300-mile race.”
Preventing Studer from winning a fourth straight Carbon Hill race was Whitehorse’s Casavant, who has won the race the last two years.
This Yukon Quest will be Casavant’s third; he placed 10th in both 2009 and 2010.
Casavant, 50, and dogs from his kennel, Casaventures, took first place in last year’s River Runner 100 and second place in the 2011 River Runner.
Hopkins, 48, has the most Quest experience of the five Yukoners. This will be his sixth Quest with three top-10 placements under his belt. His best result is eighth in 1994 and 2005 – his last time in the race. He also took ninth in 2001.
Hopkins has a fairly laid back attitude towards the Quest.
“I’ve always liked the trail and the country it goes through, so that’s one reason (I entered),” said Hopkins. “There’s no pressure on my part. I’m just going to have a good time.”
Hopkins will be running a “bunch of young dogs” from his Tagish Lake Kennel. He won the Percy DeWolfe in 2006 and took second in the 2010 Quest 300. He also took third place in last year’s River Runner 100.
“I’ve just got to go in there, take it easy,” said Hopkins. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’ve learned a lot of lessons – you’re always going to learn something.”
Dawson’s Wilmshurst, 31, is the only Yukoner to race in last year’s Quest, which was his first. In the 2012 Quest, Wilmshurst – the first Dawsonite to race in the Quest in five years – finished 16th with a time of 12 days, 12 hours and three minutes.
Wilmshurst and dogs from his B-line Racing Kennels came seventh in the River Runner 100 last year and fourth in the Percy DeWolfe the last two years.
In 2011 Wilmshurst finished ninth in the Quest 300, fifth in the River Runner 100 and sixth in the Gin Gin 200 in Alaska.
This year’s Yukon Quest begins in Whitehorse on Feb. 2. The first team will set off from the start line in Shipyards Park at 11 a.m.
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