Source: CBC (Extract)
Posted: February 19, 2022

After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of last year’s Yukon Quest sled dog race — a first in the race’s 37-year history — some wondered whether it was the beginning of the end for the iconic annual event.

The previous year’s race had already seen a smaller roster of mushers than years before, there had been some internal squabbling and resignations over race rules, and some mushers were not happy with the board’s decision to cancel the 2021 race.

“There were some problems in the past. We all know that, and it sure looked like the Quest was going to go completely downhill,” said Hans Gatt, a veteran musher from Whitehorse who now sits on the race’s board of directors in Yukon.

Now, there’s been some turnover on the board and the race is back in an entirely new form. Some say the pandemic offered an opportunity to rethink the event and make some necessary changes.

“As much as I hate COVID, it gave us the opportunity to try new things out,” Gatt said.

“I think it is positive. There’s no question about it.”

Traditionally, the race is run over a remote and sometimes mountainous 1,600-kilometre trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska, alternating the direction each year. It’s often described as more challenging than the more famous Iditarod in Alaska.

This year, there is no 1,600-kilometre race across the international border. Instead, there are four shorter races — two held in Alaska earlier this month (the 321-kilometre YQ200 and the 563-kilometre YQ350) and two in Yukon (the 160-kilometre YQ100 and the 482-kilometre YQ300) that begin Saturday afternoon in Whitehorse.

Bonnie Michaudville, the race’s executive director in Yukon, said the decision to hold several shorter races was based on a survey of mushers done last year.

“There just weren’t enough mushers to run the 1,000-mile [1,600-kilometre]. They had a hard time with COVID, some of their businesses, and also we didn’t have enough qualifiers last year for them to run,” Michaudville said.

The border crossing was also an issue. Organizers decided that it made sense to plan different events this year, on either side of the international divide.

“That way, if there were COVID restrictions going across the border, we would be fine and still be able to race.”

Mushers still had the option of entering races on both sides of the border, and a few have — including Alaskan Brent Sass, who won the Quest in 2019 and 2020. Last week, he won the YQ350 and on Saturday he hits the trail against eight other mushers in the YQ300.

The Yukon race rosters are, unsurprisingly, dominated by Canadians. Of the nine entered into the YQ300, four are Yukoners and two are Albertans. In the YQ100, five of the seven mushers are from Yukon. The YQ100 roster is also dominated by younger mushers, in their 20s.

That’s gratifying for legendary Whitehorse musher Frank Turner, a former Yukon Quest champ who’s run the race more than a dozen times. He now sits on the board.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time … and there’s been over the years a gradual diminishment in the number of Yukoners that have run in the race,” Turner said.

“And so this year we’ve got a 100-mile race from Whitehorse to Braeburn, and that is specifically designed to get people into a race format that aren’t quite ready to run a 300-mile race … that is a great thing that we’ve done, in terms of focusing on younger mushers and providing the opportunity for them.”

Improving dog care

Turner is similarly enthusiastic about another change this year, one that will likely shape how all future races are run. Mushers will be required to take longer rest stops along the way.

The Yukon Quest — and the Iditarod — have been targets of criticism over the years from animal rights activists. Some have accused mushers of mistreating their dogs, or working them too hard on the trail. Those criticisms are further fuelled when dogs occasionally die during a race.

“My opinion — I’m only speaking for myself — is that sometimes you’ll get some mushers in there that are so gung-ho on doing their thing that they’ll run their dogs too long. And we know that,” Turner said.

“When I used to run, and many of the other people, we’d run for six hours, rest for six hours. And that was really great, honestly, for the dogs. They could rest. They could digest their food, they could do everything.”

This year’s shorter races offer a chance to try out the new rules ahead of a return to the traditional 1,600-kilometre race next year. Organizers can make sure the rules achieve what they’re supposed to, Turner said.

“I think it addresses a really critical issue. And I’m really glad that everybody on the boards, both sides, on the Alaska board and the Yukon board, there was absolutely unanimous agreement.”

Nina Hansen, an Alaskan who heads up the race’s team of five veterinarians, is also happy to see a growing focus on dog care. She was in Whitehorse ahead of the weekend to do routine checks of all the dogs. The animals are also checked at rest stops along the way, to make sure they’re hydrated and still fit to run.

“This is my first time in Yukon in two years, and it feels nice to be back,” Hansen said.

“I’ve been doing this for 13 years and the dog care has just improved so much. It’s just really exciting as a vet to see that.”

Turner says he’s “really, really, really happy” to see this year’s races come together. He feels the Yukon Quest is a vital part of the territory’s history and culture.

“We’ve come up with something really good. We’ve made some really positive changes,” he said.

Michaudville agrees, and says the response so far from fans and sponsors has been overwhelming.

“It’s very gratifying that you’re doing the right thing and you’re putting on something for the community, that they want it and really need it,” she said.

“We are very excited and we can’t wait to get rolling.”