Dawson City musher Peter Ledwidge quit last year’s Yukon Quest because both he and his dogs were in less than ideal condition by the time they reached Circle, Alaska — about 75 per cent of the way through the 1,600-kilometre race.
The dogs didn’t have enough training, and Ledwidge’s back was giving him trouble.
Fast-forward to this year, and Ledwidge’s team is looking good for the starting line in Fairbanks two weeks from now. They’re well trained and ready — but Peter won’t be on the runners.
He’s passing the sled to his wife, Ann Ledwidge, a Quest rookie.
Although he initially signed up for the Quest, Ann’s name appeared on the musher’s list in early January, replacing his own.
Problems with his back flared up again during fall training.
“Peter would try to do a small run and feel good about it, and try to do another one right after — but he just couldn’t, his body couldn’t take it,” said Ann.
“He could barely move around, could barely walk for a little while.”
They considered selling the team, but decided instead to keep Stardust Kennels in the family. It wasn’t much of a surprise for her, as she’s been doing most of the training with the dogs since they started on sleds in the fall.
“I think it was hard for him to let go, and for me to jump in and say I would do it — that was always the backup plan, if something happens,” said Ann.
It wasn’t an easy decision for either of them.
“Until he decided that he absolutely couldn’t do the Quest — I didn’t want to get excited and say, ‘Yes, I really want to do it — but now I’m getting pretty exited,” she said.
“It’s not something I would ever take away from Peter — because it’s certainly his dream way more than mine, but I’d like to experience what he’s experienced. I’m looking forward to that.”
Ann has worked as Peter’s handler for all but one of his seven Yukon Quest starts, and it’s always been a family affair, with their children Marc and Emilie coming along and helping out as well.
This year, Peter and the kids will handle for Ann. Having a seasoned Quest veteran as a handler is a bonus, she said.
“I guess I have an advantage over the other rookies; I’m not saying I’m going to out-mush them, but it’s a lot easier going into it with someone who knows the trail so well, and is willing to share his information, like Peter is.”
Also, all her experience from a handler’s side of things will help as well. “I think I even have an advantage over Peter, coming into checkpoints.
“He’s always disoriented coming into a checkpoint — I think being so familiar with where everything is, year after year as a handler, hopefully I won’t have to deal with that problem.”
Ironically, Ann didn’t complete a 300- or 500-kilometre race last season, something she normally does to stay qualified for the Quest — as a backup for Peter.
So the Ledwidges trucked themselves to Glenallen, Alaska, last week for the Copper Basin 300.
That race served not only as a qualifier for the Quest, but also gave Ann a chance to polish her competitive approach.
“I wasn’t really racing,” she said.
“I wanted to practise my checkpoint routine, and I didn’t want to push the dogs at all, we rested an extra five hours.”
Although she’s never undertaken a race of this distance, many of the dogs on her team have plenty of Quest experience. Ann is confident that her dogs are up for the challenge.
“Yeah, they are, they have lots of miles on them, and I feel really good about the training that we’ve done,” she said. “I’ll be counting on them — they’ll definitely lead me down the trail with confidence.”
She’s not looking to break any records, either.
“I just want a good, clean run on the Quest, where I don’t have any major problems and the dogs are running steady, and I’m not holding them back in any way — that I’m not the weak link.
“I think we just want to have fun, and do the best job we can, and we place where we place.”
The 25th running of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race starts February 9th in Fairbanks.