Veteran Iditarod and Yukon Quest racer Michelle Phillips poses for a photo at her dog kennel near Tagish Lake, Yukon, on Jan. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

VIDEO: Michelle Phillips returns to the Yukon Quest after nearly a decade of running the Iditarod

“Once I’d helped him with the Yukon Quest one year, I decided to try my own race.”

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 john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

Yukon Quest

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Michelle Phillips gets some love from Dragon, one of her racing dogs, at her kennel. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Michelle Phillips get some kisses from Kale, one of her Yukon Quest dogs. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Just Posted

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Most Read