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Quest founder travels trail for the first time

EAGLE, AlaskaWhen Rattles pulled in off the Yukon River Tuesday night, his mustache was one big icicle.

EAGLE, Alaska

When Rattles pulled in off the Yukon River Tuesday night, his mustache was one big icicle.

The Yukon Quest trailbreakers had just arrived in Eagle, Alaska, after a day tackling overflow, snowdrifts and slush.

“If you want to keep warm, you don’t eat puffed rice,” said Rattles.

“It was 40 below one night and I took two swallows of seal oil and 20 minutes later I was peeling the parka off.”

Wiry and full of energy, the 55-year-old construction worker “has a lot of oomph left,” he said.

And he deserves some credit for the race trail he is clearing.

“I was always involved with putting on dogsled races,” he said.

“And one day I was sittin’ with Leroy Shank, Bigfoot Rossier and a bunch of guys in the Bullseye at Four Mile and we got drunk and came up with the idea.

“That’s how the Quest got started.”

But until this year, Rattles had never seen the whole race trail.

“I’ve always wanted to do this run and I knew sooner or later I would,” he said.

“I have always marked that stretch from (Fairbanks) to Angel Creek, every Quest, and we use one third of all the trail markers, just on that stretch,” he said.

“And I’ve never lost a single person.”

It’s harder running the trail with a snowmachine than with dogs, he said.

“On a dog team you’re kickin’; you’re stayin’ warmer and when you’re breaking trail on the snow machine, your not moving much faster (than a dog team) either.”

Plus holding the throttle takes a toll on the thumb muscles, he added.

They had seen a fox earlier that day on the river, and Rattles was still excited.

“We seen a fox sprint probably about two miles today,” he said, his eyes sparkling.

“He wanted to get away from us and was runnin’ full bore, then he finally cut all the way across the river and hit the bushes — he was travelling.”

Rattles is breakin’ trail with Mark Backes, a veteran who has been opening the Quest trail for the last six years and Backes’ friend Carey Bliss.

“I was only going to run with them to Central,” said Bliss. “But the weather was so nice I decided to keep going.”

Backes leads the pack, followed by Rattles.

“I’m in the middle so I keep an eye on the front and the back,” said Rattles.

“It’s not so bad now, but when it’s sub-zero, you gotta watch your partner. You look at each others faces ‘cause if you get frostbite you won’t know it ‘cause you can’t feel it.”

“Jump on,” he said.

He was heading to the Valentine’s Day dinner at the school, but roared around town first, showing off his machine.

“This old Polaris, no problems,” he said grinning. “You know why, because it is old.”

The school gym was decorated with blow-up palm trees and parrots. A giant plastic monkey was hanging from the basketball hoop.

As diners entered, they were draped with fake-flower leis, but Rattles chose not to wear one.

Munching on his ham and pineapple dinner, he talked about the Quest.

“There is no more grueling race anywhere than this,” he said.

“It takes a lot of know-how to do this, and those guys up front have that know-how.”

Rattles especially likes Sebastian Schnuelle’s racing attitude.

“We were still at Slaven’s cabin when (Hans) Gatt and Schnuelle arrived and Schnuelle was real glad to see me,” he said with a howl.

“He has a real good attitude and the dogs sense this, then they have a real good attitude too.”

Rattles started mushing dogs 26 years ago, and used to compete in mid-distance races.

He had 44 dogs, but now has only eight.

“I just run for pleasure now; it costs too much to race,” he said.

In ’88 he was going to run the Quest but fell on ice after the starting banquet and smashed his head.

“I got to Rosebud (summit) but then had to go back to Angel Creek (checkpoint) because I kept losing consciousness and falling asleep,” he said.

Rattles now “kills trees” for a living, he said laughing. He is a tree faller and works construction when he isn’t opening trails and telling stories.

And why “Rattles?”

“I used to be a hard-rock miner, drilling in underground mines,” he said.

“And I used to stand on my jack-drill, ‘cause I’m a scrawny little guy, only weigh 145 pounds and the other guys were big, they hold onto the drills with one hand.

“That’s why they call me Rattles.”

The trailbreakers left Eagle Wednesday morning, several hours ahead of the first teams.

They planned to travel the full 236-kilometre trip to Dawson in one day.

“We’ll be getting in pretty late,” said Backes.