Brent Sass and his team approach the Pelly Crossing checkpoint along the Pelly River on Feb. 9 during the 2020 Yukon Quest. The Yukon Journey will follow a similar trail to the Quest from Dawson City to Whitehorse this winter. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)

Brent Sass and his team approach the Pelly Crossing checkpoint along the Pelly River on Feb. 9 during the 2020 Yukon Quest. The Yukon Journey will follow a similar trail to the Quest from Dawson City to Whitehorse this winter. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)

Yukon Journey race announced

The Dog Powered Sports Association of the Yukon (DPSAY) announced it will hold a new long-distance sled dog race this winter with a press release on Dec. 4.

Named the Yukon Journey 450, the race will start on Feb. 21 in Dawson and run 450 miles, 725 kilometres, to Whitehorse.

Susie Rogan, vice-president of DPSAY, explained that the race was a way for the community to fill a gap in the racing calendar left when the Yukon Quest announced it wouldn’t run a full-length race this year and later announced it would not run a race of any sort in the Yukon.

“People felt that DPSAY could step up and do a long-distance race,” Rogan said, pointing out that previous DPSAY boards had organized annual mid-distance races. “We thought, well, let’s do something longer because there isn’t going to be a long-distance race in the Yukon this year.”

While the route is nearly identical to the trail typically used to race the Quest, the Journey has a number of fundamental differences in format that organizers hope could provide a proof of concept for other long-distance races trying to balance competing pressures from mushers, sponsors, fans, activists and media.

“The community had had a meeting to put forward a format for a Yukon Quest race in the Yukon since there wasn’t going to be an international race, and that format suggested vastly increased mandatory rest,” Rogan said.

When the Quest board elected not to race in the Yukon this year, the idea was ported over to DPSAY.

“Being a much smaller organization with far less expectations … we felt we could do a streamlined more Yukon-only community-based event,” Rogan said.

The format for this race is different right from the beginning.

After starting on Feb. 21 in Dawson City, mushers have 48 hours to make it to the first checkpoint in Pelly Crossing. Once there, mushers have four hours of mandatory rest before the race restarts to continue to Whitehorse. The first 52 hours – from Dawson to Pelly – is untimed.

“The biggest change is going back to this concept of the first half of the race is a relaxed, enjoyable event,” Rogan said. “It used to be that way with the Quest. In talking with (four-time Quest winner) Hans Gatt, they kind of had a camping trip to Dawson and then, boom, the race is on for the second half.”

Typically, depending on direction, mushers will have either four or eight hours of mandatory rest on the Quest between Pelly Crossing and Whitehorse. In this format, mushers will have to take 20 hours total of mandatory rest at either checkpoints – Carmacks and Braeburn – or at special timing stops – three areas for wilderness camping in between checkpoints. At the timing stops, volunteers will be on site with stop watches to track each team’s rest.

An added bonus of the restart in Pelly Crossing is it will keep teams closer together and allow checkpoints to be open shorter lengths of time – something more important than usual given COVID-19 precautions.

The Chief Medical Officer of Health has signed off on the COVID-19 plan for the race and First Nations governments along the route have given their approval as well, with some caveats.

In Carmacks the checkpoint will likely be located outside the community rather than at the community centre, for example, and in Pelly Crossing the checkpoint location may change depending on what the situation is closer to race time.

While outside help is usually outlawed in long-distance races, this year’s Journey will allow handlers to setup camp for mushers, including straw, drop bags, tents and food. As Rogan explained, it’s all about “bubbles” and by allowing mushers and handlers to work more directly there will be less centralized services and shared spaces needed at checkpoints.

Checkpoints on this race will be like scaled-down versions of the Quest dog yard in Dawson, rather than a typical checkpoint.

Entries in the race are expected to be limited to Yukoners and those who have met all required self-isolation requirements, and will be capped at 25 mushers. Registration is expected to open for the race just before the holidays.

Teams will have a maximum of 12 dogs on the line to start the race, and while not finalized, will likely require a minimum of six dogs to finish.

Prize money for the race is to be determined, as race funding from Lotteries Yukon was only secured earlier this month and canvassing for prize money donations is in the early stages.

The trail itself will be put in from Dawson to Braeburn by John Mitchell and other volunteers (Mitchell and the Canadian Rangers typically handle the trail breaking for the Quest, but Mitchell is not acting in any official capacity with this race), with Gatt and company handling the trail from Braeburn to Whitehorse.

“We just think it’s going to be interesting at the very least. You have to try these positive changes,” Rogan said. “Maybe … with the Yukon Quest it’s not possible to make changes like this without seeing whether it’s going to work; maybe we’ll be able to test that out for everybody.”

Anyone looking to volunteer with the race is asked to contact DPSAY through Facebook or via email at dogpoweredsports@gmail.com.

The Yukon Journey appears to be the final piece of the puzzle in this winter’s tentative Yukon mushing calendar.

DPSAY is holding a poker fun run on Dec. 19, its annual Carbon Hill Raceday on Jan. 10, 2021, and a 10-mile race on March 14, 2021.

The Yukon Dog Musher’s Association is holding a preliminary race on Dec. 12 and will hold the Babe Southwick Memorial Race on Feb. 12 and 13, 2021.

New this year is the Yukon Brewing Copper Haul League, hosted by the Federation of Klondike and Yukon Working Dogs, which starts with a qualifier on Jan. 2, 2021.

Other notable Yukon races include the Silver Sled Dog Sled Race scheduled for Jan. 23 and 24, 2021, and the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race starting March 6, 2021.

The Summit Quest, hosted by the Yukon Quest’s Alaska branch, will start in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 13, 2021.

Race organizers across the territory have been unanimous in their messaging that these races are all subject to change — in terms of timing, length and eligibility — based on updates to COVID-19 restrictions.

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

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