Mount Lorne’s Rob Cooke crossed the finish line of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse on Feb. 15 in 10th position with all 14 dogs on the line at 9:07 a.m.
This was Cooke’s seventh time racing in the 1,600-kilometre race held annually between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse.
“Well they did an amazing job,” said Cooke about his team at the finish. “All 14 have stepped up. Certainly leaving Braeburn, all 14 dogs were pulling hard. I felt sorry for some of the younger dogs. I think at times they’ve been kind of shellshocked.”
This year’s team was very much a new look for Cooke, as last year’s race was the final one for the “Crazies” litter who had been a staple of his team for the last number of years.
That meant that this year’s team was significantly younger and less experienced.
“They’ve been super happy the whole race; they really have,” said Cooke. “They keep me happy and they keep me motivated as well. They really are a pleasure to be with on the trail.”
Cooke said two of his dogs — Arseface and Whizz — led the majority of the race from Eagle, Alaska, to the finish, overcoming blown-in trail, heavy snowfall and overflow along the way.
When he left Carmacks, Cooke’s plan was to split the 117-km run into Braeburn into two even though he’s twice made the trip in one run.
“Between Carmacks and Braeburn we got caught on the lakes,” said Cooke. “I made some bad decisions over where to camp. I thought the two previous times we’ve come this way we’ve done it in one run and I packed to do it in two runs and I got kind of cocky.”
He said the team was running well and breaking trail but that around 80 km into the run, he knew he’d need to camp.
“So we camped and it snowed pretty badly and blew in pretty badly,” said Cooke. “We did eventually make it to Braeburn.”
Things were going well out of Braeburn, Cooke said noting that the trail seemed to be setting up thanks to some bison hunters he suspected had been through the area.
But the Quest had other ideas for Cooke and his team.
“Chase (Tingle), myself and Pat (Noddin) had talked about this in Eagle — that you make the mistake of thinking things are going to go great, and all of a sudden, the Quest kicks you in the ass,” said Cooke. “And that’s really what happened last night.”
On the Tahkini River, his team hit a couple small patches of overflow before things got worse.
“We hit significant overflow,” said Cooke. “All of us were swimming in it. We’d just got onto the Tahkini (River) and I was about 10 miles out of Muktuk (Adventures) and I thought maybe Manuela and some of her guests… they’d be out on the river. And as we were getting closer, my boots were actually full of water and I could feel them going numb.”
He said he pulled his team off the river and got word to race officials that he wanted the vets to check on his dogs.
“I stopped and chatted to them and said we needed to get word to the race so the race could try and do something to stop the same situation from happening to Olivia (Webster),” said Cooke. “I didn’t think the trail was going to be great coming in on the Yukon (River), so I figured it wasn’t going to hurt having an extra four hours, just giving the dogs another rest, and it paid off because they had the power and the motivation to get here.”
At the finish line, Cooke was also asked about his hands and feet given he suffered some frostbite during this winter’s Copper Basin 300.
“Everything held up OK,” said Cooke. “I don’t normally use handwarmers; I’ve used hundreds just to try to keep the tips of my fingers OK.”
Asked what he learned, Cooke thought for a moment before replying dryly.
“I learned that seven is enough.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org