Rob Cooke starts the Yukon Quest at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 1. Cooke said simply holding a race this year is a “light for us at the end of the tunnel.” (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)

The 2021 Yukon Quest will be like no other

The Yukon Quest’s announcement on June 17 of separate races in Alaska and the Yukon in 2021 means that whatever happens this year will be unlike any other Quest.

Things like race length, checkpoints and prize money are still to be determined, but Shayna Hammer, executive director of the Yukon Quest International Association in Canada, said the announcement allows for planning to begin in earnest.

“Because of the border limitations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, our board … sat down and had to look at what challenges we might be facing with travel restrictions,” Hammer said. “The ability to travel between either country is integral to the execution of the race. Not just for the mushers themselves, but for the infrastructure of the race in terms of logistics.”

In a typical year, volunteers travel from around the world to help out with the race. Although a lot can change in the seven months between now and February 2021, the work starts now.

“I know a lot of people might look at it and go, ‘This is quite a ways away,’ but for us to be planning and to be securing sponsorships, to be working with a variety of logistics needs that are planned now, we need to have certainty that the border crossing would be open and that’s just not possible at this time,” Hammer said. “The best foot forward was to decide on having two separate races for this coming year.”

While the logistics of crossing an international border are a main reason for the decision, the financial situation for the organization in Alaska is not ideal either.

“We’re working hard to find solutions for our financial situation,” Dave Dalton, president of the Alaska Board of Directors, is quoted saying in the June 17 release. “We’ve weighed what we can feasibly commit to for the 2021 race season and have determined that it makes the most sense to scale back this year and focus our efforts and resources on a shorter race in Alaska.”

One possibility for a race route on the Alaskan side of the border would be to follow the usual race route from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Circle City, Alaska, and back.

That route would be 432 miles (695 kilometres), and would require mushers to tackle Rosebud and Eagle summits twice each, as well as two trips along Birch Creek — no easy feat.

Another possibility would be to simply hold a 300-mile (483-km) race using the typical Yukon Quest 300 trail, ending in Central, Alaska.

Both those scenarios, however, would require the Quest to secure the logistics to set up checkpoints at Mile 101 and Two Rivers — two checkpoints that are put together solely for the race.

On the Canadian side, a 460-mile (740-km) race from Whitehorse to Dawson City would visit all the usual Quest checkpoints and communities on the Canadian side. It would also give a chance for Dawson to host a Quest finish for the first time.

Another option would be to start the race in Dawson and run to Whitehorse, though this would mirror the second half of last year’s race route.

Veteran musher Rob Cooke was planning to run the Yukon Quest 300 this year, but said this race has his interest.

“Any race would be good,” Cooke said. “A few people have talked about the possibility of a Whitehorse to Dawson race and I think that would be an awful lot of fun. One advantage with that is the race would still include Whitehorse, it would include Carmacks, Pelly, McCabe Creek, Stepping Stone and, obviously, Dawson.”

The only stop missing would be the hospitality stop usually held at Clinton Creek, which is between Dawson and Eagle, Alaska, on the usual route.

“I think the communities and Whitehorse and Dawson have all suffered from the drop off in tourism because of COVID, so to have this race in the winter I think it could generate a lot of interest and it could be good for businesses and good for tourism.”

Earlier this month Iditarod organizers announced that entry fees would be halved until June 27, something Cooke said may end up shrinking the Quest field somewhat.

“Iditarod were pretty smart with what they did,” Cooke said. “They don’t have necessarily the same challenges that the Yukon Quest has — they only have one board of directors, they only operate in Alaska — so they were able pretty early on to offer a reduced entry fee to mushers. I think quite a few mushers actually saw that opportunity and jumped on it. I think maybe because of the way the financial situation is impacting on mushers, there would be very few mushers that would be able to do both races this year, so that could be an impact.”

Cooke said he’s been trying to be optimistic and that simply holding a race may be a victory of sorts.

“If we can all pull together and make this race happen and make it a success, it’s light for us at the end of the tunnel after having such a bad year so far,” Cooke said.

While last year’s 1,000-mile race included just five Canadians and just two Yukoners in the Yukon Quest 300, there are plenty of mushers in the territory who have raced the Quest in previous years or have raced other mid-distance races. Depending on what entry requirements are placed on the race by organizers surrounding qualifications, this winter’s race could be a very interesting race field made up of veterans, rookies and everything in between.

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

Yukon Quest

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