The Yukon Quest is supposed to be all about dog care, said Tagish musher Michelle Phillips.
“Then you get out there on the trail and you’re watching your best friends get slammed around and you think, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’”
A dog race needs three things: dog mushers, a purse and a trail, said Phillips, getting a coffee at the Dawson checkpoint on Friday.
“And this year they forgot about the trail.
“It breaks your heart when the dogs are getting slammed around because someone dropped the ball.”
After making it through the jumble ice on the Yukon River, Phillips was emotional.
“I started crying — we were still alive. I felt like someone beat the crap out of me and my team,” she said.
Phillips is on the Quest trail committee, but plans to resign.
“I joined the board because I love the race,” she said.
“We spent all these evenings e-mailing and came up with 10 recommendations to improve the trail. And not one of them was implemented — it was a waste of time.”
At one point, while she was making recommendations, Phillips had someone laugh in her face.
This year, the jumble ice on the Yukon River was “suicide,” she said.
“I’ve never seen a trail like that.”
The trailbreakers opened the Yukon River section the same day the frontrunners were travelling over it.
Reigning champ Lance Mackey actually ended up in front of the trailbreakers for about 16 kilometres, trying to pick his way through the jumble ice with 13 dogs.
“It’s inexcusable to send a dog team over a trail like that,” said Dawson musher Peter Ledwidge, who’s handling for his wife Ann this year.
Ledwidge, who’s on the Quest board, sits on the trail committee with Phillips.
“They should be thinking about what’s in the best interest of the dogs,” he said.
“And the bad trail hurt so many dogs.”
This year, roughly 30 per cent of the dogs in the race were dropped by the time teams made it to the halfway point in Dawson City.
Most of the dogs have sprained wrists or shoulders, said head vet Vern Starks on Saturday.
There was more jumble ice this year, he said.
“So the mushers couldn’t sleep on their sleds. And there’re cracks in the ice that dogs can drop a foot in.”
But the number of dropped dogs is not much higher than previous years, said Starks, citing frostbite as another problem.
Often mushers will drop young dogs while they’re still having fun, so they have a positive experience on the race, he added.
“And lots of mushers drop dogs because it’s less work than dealing with an injury,” like massaging a wrist.
When the Iditarod changed the number of dogs on a team to 16 from 20, the race actually sped up, said Starks.
Ann Ledwidge has had seven dogs since Slaven’s cabin, 399 kilometres before Dawson.
“She’s down to seven dogs because of their incompetence,” said Phillips, citing the horrible trail.
The trail should have been put in a minimum of three weeks before the race, said Peter Ledwidge.
“You can’t break a trail the day teams are running over it.
“It might be fine for trapline dogs, but you can’t put high-speed race teams through that.”
The Ledwidges, who live just outside Dawson, train on the river once a good trail is established.
“But I won’t go on that trail until snowmachines have been running over it for at least three weeks,” said Ledwidge.
“Because when you break a trail there are huge cracks in the ice that dogs can fall into and they could break a leg.”
After three weeks, wind blows over the trail, snow usually fills the cracks and the trail gets a good base, he said.
Ledwidge and Phillips aren’t blaming the volunteers who put in the trail.
The Quest should pay people to do it, because it takes weeks, said Ledwidge.
On the Canadian side, the Yukon Rangers put in the trail.
“We’re lucky,” said Ledwidge.
The Rangers started working on the Quest trail on January 8th, a month before the race.
Over the next four weeks, they ran over the trail three times.
During the drivers’ meeting in Dawson on Friday, Ranger Patrol Sergeant John Mitchell went over the trail in detail for the mushers.
The trail is excellent this year, he said.
Mitchell described exactly where the patches of overflow were, stressed that every turn was well marked and told mushers where they’d encounter jumble ice.
“But the choppy ice has a good snow base,” he said, because the trail was well packed in advance.
Much of the trail is “like a highway,” said Mitchell.
The only trouble was after Carmacks, where wolves had come through and stolen the trail markers.
“But we’ve already remarked that area,” he said, warning mushers that they might also run into some buffalo.
The last 160-kilometre section of trail, from Braeburn to Whitehorse, will be marked when the first team gets to Braeburn, he said.
This is to ensure the markers are still in place when the teams go through.
At the end of the meeting, reigning champ Lance Mackey had a question for Mitchell.
“Ever consider going all the way through Alaska?” he said.
“Or maybe give them some lessons on how to put in a trail,” added Phillips.
But the Canadian trail wasn’t always such a cakewalk, said Alaskan musher Dave Dalton, who’s running his 18th Quest this year.
“It used to be the other way around before the Rangers took over the trail,” he said.
“The Alaskan side was good and the Canadian side was terrible.”
Dalton, who rekindled the Yukon Quest Finishers Club two years ago, plans to focus the group’s effort on the trail.
The trail and the markers need to be put in at least two weeks before the race, he said.
“Not the day of the race.
“We need to pack it and drag it, or we’re going to lose it.
“If we don’t take matters into our own hands, no one will come back to run this race. They might as well go to the Iditarod, where they have a good trail.”
The young people running the race have to get away from their laptop computers and get out on the trail, said Dalton.
“Because putting in a trail takes a lot of physical work, not just talking on the phone and looking at maps on the computer.”
A few years ago, the finishers club, which has 100 members, worked on raising the purse.
Now that the purse is bigger, it’s time to focus on the trail, said Dalton.
He hopes to get snowmachine clubs, the Alaskan government, locals and the park service involved.
The focus will be getting it in and well marked early, he said.
The Quest organization has been told how important the trail is time and again, and it just “doesn’t listen,” said Dalton.
“We’re getting tired of this crap, so we’re just going to do it ourselves.”
Former Quest champ Bill Cotter, who’s 61, hasn’t run the race since the year he won it, 1987.
But he decided to come back for the Quest’s 25th running.
And he’s having fun, he said.
“But the trail is ridiculous.
“You can’t hold a race with a $1,000 entry fee, that costs mushers at least $10,000 in dog food and training, and then not give them trail markers for miles and miles and miles and miles.”
It’s dangerous, said rookie Ken Anderson, who has run the Iditarod numerous times.
But then, it’s a tough race, he said.
“I’ve run the Percy de Wolfe over really bad jumble ice and that was with a fast team, so you’re just flying though it.”
And racing in France, the trail is even worse, said Anderson.
“You are going over stuff like Eagle Summit three times a day.”
The trail is tough, said veteran musher Bill Pinkham, emptying out his sled at his dog camp in Dawson.
“But I expected it.
“It’s how you look at things: Is the glass half full, or half empty?”
The trail wasn’t really marked, he added.
“Maybe we’ll bring this up at a finishers’ meeting.”
It seems like the Quest organization “doesn’t really care,” said Pinkham, pointing out holes in his sled bag.
The trail was so badly marked on the way to the first checkpoint at Chena Hot Springs that Pinkham ended up getting dragged down the highway.
Cotter, Mackey and rookie Didier Moggia also got lost on the way to Chena.
The bolts on the right side of Pinkham’s sled were shaved down to the metal from the incident.
“Luckily the sled didn’t fall apart in the jumble ice,” he said, remaining positive.
“You might as well have a good time.”
When Pinkham left Dawson, he was down to eight dogs.
Veteran Kelly Griffin also left with eight.
“That’s a good average, considering the trail conditions,” she said.
“It’s surprising I have that many left.”
Griffin is trying to have fun, she said.
“But most of the time my frustration level is high because of the trail conditions.”
Fairbanks musher Brent Sass left with nine dogs. “But it’s really a team with 10 members,” he said, counting himself.
His only problem with the trail was attitude.
It was hard keeping the younger dogs’ morale up in the jumble ice, said Sass. And his dog Walter hurt a shoulder.
“I had to carry him through it and I thought I’d bust the sled or hurt someone,” he said.
“But we made it through just fine.
“I just try and stay upbeat as much as possible — I’m a pretty upbeat person, and the more positive I am, they feed off that and feel good about everything.”
Race marshal Doug Grilliot wouldn’t comment on the trail.
“We’ve gotten through that section,” he said.
“So we need to move on and get the race to Whitehorse.”
Only one section of trail had fewer markers than it should have, said race director Josea Busby on Sunday, citing the section between the Nation River and the Kandick River, after Slaven’s cabin.
And the cold weather, 50 and 60 below Fahrenheit, slowed down the trailbreakers, she said.
“For next year we need to get the trail breaking system out earlier.
“It’s my first year doing it, and there need to be some improvements.”
After asking Busby about teams getting lost before Chena, she admitted that section was also poorly marked.
“I was out until 4 a.m. correcting it,” she said.
But it was after the fact.
When mushers arrived in Chena and complained about the lack of markers, Busby would get them to describe where they had trouble and they headed out to fix it, she said.
“But that area is hard to mark, because there are lots of driveways and roads,” said Busby.
“We tried to instill a trail-breaking manual. But different people may interpret it differently.
“And we have to rely on volunteers.”
Busby would not comment on whether the Quest would consider paying trailbreakers in the future.