Yukoner Michelle Phillips is putting the final touches on preparations for her seventh Yukon Quest – her first in nearly a decade.
That’s not to say she hasn’t been racing, just not in the Quest.
“I ran the Yukon Quest six times and then I started running the Iditarod,” said Phillips. “I decided that I wanted to revisit the Quest – do something different – and my partner, Ed (Hopkins) has been running the Yukon Quest. He is a rookie and he wanted to run the Iditarod, so we decided to switch it up.”
Together, Phillips and Hopkins run Tagish Lake Kennel, home to more than 60 dogs, and — among other things — tend to finish well in the Yukon Quest.
Both Phillips and Hopkins have multiple top-five finishes in the Quest, and Phillips said the key to staying focused is to key in on the dogs.
“You just have to stay focused on your team and watch your watch — make sure that you’re being efficient — and run your dogs according to how they look,” said Phillips. “Run your own race, but don’t fall into yourself too much.”
She said music helps, too.
“I enjoy listening to music, especially when I’m tired,” said Phillips. “It motivates me.”
Unfortunately, she is sometimes at the mercy of whatever her iPod feels like playing.
“It’s kind of whatever comes up on my iPod. It’s sometimes hard to get through all your layers to change your iPod, so you’re kind of stuck sometimes.”
Phillips said it was Hopkins that first drew her into mushing.
“I started hanging out with my partner, Ed — he has been a dog musher for many, many years — and I started helping him with his dogs,” said Phillips. “That got me interested in the sport. Once I’d helped him with the Yukon Quest one year, I decided to try my own race.”
Now, Phillips has 21 years of mushing experience to go with six Yukon Quests and nine Iditarods.
“They’re both very different races. The Yukon Quest, you travel long distances by yourself. Your sled is a lot heavier. It’s dark — much darker than the Iditarod,” said Phillips. “The Iditarod is extreme competition — it’s the Olympics of mushing — so you have the best long-distance racers in the world.”
Weather plays a major role in both races, albeit in different ways.
While the Quest is predictably cold, the Iditarod trail near the coast opens teams up to coastal storms.
“Both are challenging in different ways,” said Phillips. “They’re both extreme — a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometre) race is 1,000 miles — but they are very uniquely different.”
Phillips said what drew her to the Quest initially is what she still likes most about the race.
“The thing I like about being on the Quest is just being out there, hanging out with your dogs, travelling in such beautiful wilderness,” said Phillips. “Just the whole how you tested yourself travelling with a dog team for so many miles. … It just really appealed to me.”
Predictably, the same wilderness and isolation that make the race appealing can also make it incredibly taxing.
“Some of the challenging parts are the dark and cold,” said Phillips. “You know, the middle of the night — 3 or 4 a.m. — really cold, staying awake. Those are some of the harder parts.”
Phillips said she is running a young team this year, but that the team has some experience as well.
“It’s a younger team, definitely,” said Phillips. “They do have some 1,000-mile experience. Right now I don’t have my final 14, but there are a couple rookies in my team and the rest is made up of either Iditarod or Quest finishers.”
With limited snowfall, training time on the sled has been at a premium for mushers this winter.
“It’s been challenging because of the lack of snow,” said Phillips. “Out of our yard, we have to run small teams. So when you’re training a lot of dogs, it takes a lot longer.”
Like many local mushers, Phillips said she has made multiple trips to the South Canol Road for extended trips.
“We just had to adapt,” said Phillips. “Of course, every year is different — we’ve been running dogs for a lot of years, so we’ve seen a lot of changing conditions — but it can be challenging for sure. You spend a lot more gas money.”
Phillips said she prefers this year’s direction of travel from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska.
“The Fairbanks to Circle (Alaska) trail can be fairly rough,” said Phillips. “You go down Eagle (Summit) — I’ve had some bad experiences going down Eagle — so I prefer leaving with a fresher team from Whitehorse.”
For Phillips, this year’s Quest is not only about the race but also revisiting the entire experience.
“I’m mostly looking forward to revisiting the Yukon Quest trail since we haven’t seen that for so many years. The Yukon Quest is a lot more intimate, a lot less people,” said Phillips. “I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of my favourite stops on the trail and seeing some of my friends along the trail.”
And once Phillips finishes the race, she’s sticking to her plan.
“I usually like having a beer and then a nice meal, a bath (and) sleep.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org