Jason Biasetti, seen here during the 2019 Yukon Quest, won his third-straight Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race in 2019. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)

Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race cancelled but planning underway to deliver the mail

The annual race is a roundtrip between Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska

The 2020 Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race was officially cancelled on March 16, but organizers aren’t giving up on getting the mail delivered.

A press release from the organizing committee stressed that the decision was not an easy one to make, but that it would be irresponsible to hold the race given the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We feel that it would be irresponsible to hold an event which not only brings people from outside the communities of Eagle (Alaska) and Dawson to those relatively isolated places, but also inevitably involves gathering people together at a time when both of these actions are so heavily discouraged,” the release states.

Anna Claxton, president of the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race Committee, told the News that the committee had been monitoring the situation closely over the last few days.

“Last Friday, all the official recommendations were still kind of that gatherings were OK,” said Claxton. “We were still thinking that our event was OK and we might just have to sort of make some adjustments to the banquet or our volunteer party.”

Things got more complicated on March 16 though, with new recommendations from the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health banning gatherings of more than 50 people and recommending against crossing the border. On March 18, the federal government announced the border would be closed to all non-essential travel between the United States and Canada.

“When we started to think about the event in terms of the new recommendations and in terms of how cautious our community was already being in terms of this virus, it just started to seem less and less socially responsible to hold the event at all.”

This year’s event had a total of 18 mushers signed up for the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, a 210-mile (340-kilometre) race to Eagle and back, as well as the 100-mile (160-km) Percy Junior from to Fortymile and back.

Claxton said the numbers were on the low side of average, but that the ratio between the two races was a bit unusual. Typically, the longer race has a larger field.

While none of the many cancellations in the field of sports this week were easy, the legacy of DeWolfe was not lost on the race committee.

“He was known for always getting the mail through no matter what,” said Claxton. “There are endless stories of him falling through the ice and breaking trail through blizzards. Just on and on and on, obstacle after obstacle, always getting the mail through every week, all winter long. … It means a lot to us on the committee to hold the race, it means a lot to the mushers who participate, it means a lot to the community of Dawson. There just wasn’t any other socially responsible decision we could make.”

Scheduled late in the season, race organizers had no option to move the events to later in the season.

“Last year, we had to do a last-minute reroute because it was too warm and the river was unsafe below Fortymile,” said Claxton. “So postponing wasn’t really on the trail.”

One of the race’s biggest fundraisers is the sale of “trail mail” which is delivered to Eagle during the race.

The race typically starts at 10 a.m., with mushers leaving the chute every two minutes beginning at 10:02 a.m. The first time slot to leave is symbolically reserved for DeWolfe.

True to the spirit of the race, Claxton said plans are underway to have one of the local mushers who initially signed up for the race deliver the mail by dog sled at least as far as the American border.

“We’re just looking at ways that we can still honour that commitment and honour the memory of Percy that way, even without holding the event,” said Claxton. “We’re just talking to one of our local mushers here who was palnning to run the race and he’s quite into the idea of honouring Percy’s memory that way.”

Claxton said plans for the mail delivery will be finalized as soon as the logistics of cancelling the event are sorted, with the musher likely leaving Dawson by the end of the week.

The 2020 Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race was scheduled to start March 19.

The race website lists results dating back as far as 1981, but Claxton said to her knowledge this may be the first time the race has been cancelled. Claxton said one of the early races was at risk of being cancelled due to bad weather and trail conditions, but that a group of mushers still ran that year.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

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