Everything you need to know about the Yukon Journey

The 2021 Yukon Journey dogsled race starts in Pelly Crossing on Feb. 24, and you’d be forgiven for having missed a few of the steps along the pandemic path that led to this point.

While the Iditarod – run entirely in Alaska – continues on this winter with comparatively minor COVID-19 precautions in place, the Yukon Quest was not spared by the pandemic.

Back in September, the Quest announced first that there would be no 1,000-mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse this year, and then that there would be separate races held on each side of the border. While the aptly named Summit Quest was won by Dan Kaduce in Alaska earlier this month, plans for a Canadian mid-distance race fell through.

It was then that the Dog Powered Sports Association of the Yukon (DPSAY) stepped in to organize a race to fill the hole left in the mushing calendar.

The Yukon Journey, as it was soon named, was originally envisioned as a race from Dawson City to Whitehorse. Not content to have a typical race, the idea was to have teams start the race in Dawson City, travel from Dawson to Pelly Crossing over a 52-hour time period, with the timed portion of the race then beginning with a “restart” of sorts in Pelly Crossing after a mandatory four-hour rest.

A lack of veterinarians available to assist with the race, primarily due to COVID-19 travel restrictions set by the territorial government, meant organizers had to shorten the race to begin in Pelly Crossing and end in Whitehorse, approximately 260 miles (roughly 420 kilometres) away.

The format

Although the idea of an untimed initial first half won’t be in effect for this race, the format itself is a mix of its Quest influences and DPSAY’s sprint and mid-distance heritage.

While the Quest is perhaps most well-known for the relative lack of checkpoints and support along the trail, the Journey differs a great deal in its clear and very conscious focus on dog care through the implementation of mandatory rest.

Racers will have two mandatory checkpoints – Carmacks and Braeburn – as well as a series of timed rest stations along the way.

The first time station is between Pelly Crossing and Carmacks in McCabe, the second is between Carmacks and Braeburn at Mandanna Lake, and the final time station is on the Braeburn trail between the checkpoint and the finish in Whitehorse.

Between the two checkpoints and the three time stations, mushers will need to rest a total of 20 hours.

Timing at the time stations will be done in 30 minute intervals, so 25 minutes of rest counts as no rest at all which could add an interesting nuance to decision making – particularly as the race nears completion.

Handlers in the race will be able to setup camp for mushers, allowing for each team to have its own bubble and be less reliant on checkpoint volunteers and race officials.

Each team will start the race with a maximum of 12 dogs and a minimum of eight dogs, and must have six dogs on the line at the finish.

The race marshal is Catherine Pinard, a veteran musher and Yukon Quest finisher.

The trail

Starting in Pelly Crossing, it’s roughly 260 miles to Whitehorse.

From the start, mushers will race through town before hitting the trail toward McCabe. The trail report on Feb. 23 indicated the lakes in the area are well staked with little in the way of blown in snow.

From McCabe, the trail alternates between the Yukon River and overland trail and includes a couple spots where a wrong turn could lead to wet feet or worse.

The trail from Carmacks to Mandanna Lake includes two short stretches on the Yukon River in the first 15 miles that were blown in the day before the race, but is better defined after that point.

Leaving the Mandanna Lake time station, mushers will be following the left side of the lake though weather forecasts and current conditions mean mushers will likely be doing a serious amount of trail breaking through the Chain Lakes. Again, mushers were advised to follow the trail and heed any posted warnings.

From Braeburn to the Braeburn time station follows Braeburn Lake onto the Dawson Overland Trail. This stretch of trail had at least two sections of overflow on Feb. 23.

After the final time station, it’s one final slog down the Dawson Overland Trail before getting onto the Yukon River one last time until the finish line.

The mushers

The race participants have been in somewhat of a state of flux over the last few weeks, as the official shortening of the race led mushers to reconsider earlier decisions about racing or not racing.

With the dust settled and the start of the race looming, it will be 11 mushers competing in the Journey.

The list itself is an interesting mix of youth and experience, long-distance pedigree and sprint mushing savvy.

Some of the more notable long-distance names in the field include four-time Yukon Quest winner Hans Gatt and Quest veterans Susie Rogan, Ed Hopkins, Marcelle Fressineau, Kyla Boivin, Jason Biasetti, and Nathaniel Hamlyn.

The field also includes a couple familial connections. Partners Gatt and Rogan will be racing against each other, as will the father-son duo of Paul and Nathaniel Hamlyn.

Yukon Journey Mushers
Jacob Heigers
Hans Gatt
Susie Rogan
Marcelle Fressineau
Kyla Boivin
Connor McMahon
Jason Biasetti
Martine Le Levier
Nathaniel Hamlyn
Paul Hamlyn
Ed Hopkins

Where can I watch?

While the race has the full approval of the territory’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and the blessing of communities and First Nations along the route, organizers are requesting the public not come out to watch the race. Luckily, the race will be going live on Facebook for the official start.

If staying home simply isn’t an option, give your head a shake but follow this advice: stay out of the communities, practise social distancing, and be respectful.

The official start and finish locations are being kept close to the vest in order to keep mushers, volunteers and community members as safe as possible.

How to stay up to date

For the latest on the race, follow Yukon Sports Report on Twitter or simply follow along with the race’s official Facebook page.