Previewing the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race

The 45th Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race starts in Dawson City on Saturday, March 6 at 10 a.m., with a field of 11 mushers scheduled to race.

This year marks a return for the race, as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that last year’s race was cancelled. In keeping with Percy DeWolfe’s legacy, three-time reigning winner Jason Biasetti made a solo mail run in 2020.

Shortened to just 110 miles (177 kilometres) because of the ongoing COVID-related border closures, this race will still have a nine-dog maximum and times will be entirely contingent on weather and conditions on the Fortymile and Yukon rivers.

The history

The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race traces its roots back to 1977, when it was first held in honour of Percy DeWolfe, who carried mail between Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska, from 1910 to 1949 via dog team, horse and boat.

Born in Nova Scotia, DeWolfe first came to Dawson in 1898 with Pete Anderson and the two built up a fishing business in the summer months and did freighting work in the winter.

That all changed in 1910 when DeWolfe got the contract to carry the mail.

He carried the mail through all kinds of weather – good and bad – including one trip home from Eagle in 1947 when temperatures in Dawson City reached -58 C.

A search party was started – as he was a week overdue – but DeWolfe waved at the search plane when it reached Halfway House and he eventually made it home with temperatures still at -45 C.

Although the race starts at 10 a.m. sharp, that time is reserved for DeWolfe and the first musher leaves at 10:02 a.m., following DeWolfe with a bag of mail.

The field

Eleven mushers are expected to compete this year, with an interesting mix of youth and experience; rookies and veterans.

Five of the 11 mushers – Aiyana O’Shaughnessy, Connor McMahon, Jess Sears, Krys March and Marcelle Fressineau – are racing in the Percy for the first time, though Sears and March have both raced in the Percy Junior in past years.

Ed Hopkins is probably the musher with the longest history with the race. Hopkins first raced the Percy in 1992 and won the race twice – in 1999 and in 2007.

Having won the race in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Biasetti is definitely a musher to expect to see near the front of the pack.

Hopkins and Biasetti finished second and third in the recently completed Yukon Journey, so it doesn’t seem a stretch to think they’ll be competitive again in this race.

If Hopkins has the longest history with the race, then Jonathan Lucas has the most intersting. Lucas has won the Percy Skijor race in 2010 and 2012, finished the Percy in 2010 and was second in the Percy Junior in 2013. Nobody else in the field has competed in all three Percy races.

Paul Hamlyn is back this year, having finished ninth in 2019, and will race against his son, Nathaniel Hamlyn, who’s finished in the top five all four times he raced in the Percy.

Kyla Boivin most recently won the Percy Junior in 2018, but had top five finishes in the Percy back in 2016 and 2017 and recently raced in the 2021 Yukon Journey.

Fressineau is a Percy rookie, but her resume includes finishing both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod so this descriptor feels a bit… off.

McMahon’s team looked very fast at times during the Yukon Journey and could shake things up on the leaderboard in this shorter race.

NamePercy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race experience
Aiyana O’ShaughnessyRookie
Connor McMahonRookie
Ed Hopkins14-time finisher, two-time winner
Jason BiasettiSix-time finisher, three-time winner
Jess SearsRookie, Percy Junior finisher
Jonathan LucasOne-time finisher, two-time Percy Skijor winner
Krys MarchRookie, two-time Percy Junior finisher
Kyla BoivinFive-time finisher, one-time Percy Junior winner
Marcelle FressineauRookie
Nathaniel HamlynFour-time finisher
Paul HamlynOne-time finisher

The trail

The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race trail map for 2021. (Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race committee)

The Percy traditionally is a race from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, and back, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and issues surrounding border crossings, this year’s race is taking place entirely in the Yukon and is shorter than usual at just 110 miles (177 km).

From the start line outside Dawson City, mushers will head down the Top of the World Highway to Clinton Creek Road. Mushers will then follow Clinton Creek Road onto the Fortymile River at Clinton Creek and then to the checkpoint at Forty Mile, where the Fortymile River meets the Yukon River.

Teams will have to rest a minimum of six hours in Forty Mile before racing back to the finish along the Yukon River. At the checkpoint, teams are expected to be entirely self-sufficient – mushers are responsible for straw, food and water, though organizers are hoping to have water available. The race will also have veterinary care available at the checkpoint.

Shortened to just 110 miles, this race still has plenty to challenge competitors.

The trail gains 2,300 feet (700 metres) of elevation in the first six miles (10 km) and climbs to elevations as high as 4,000 feet (1,220 m) by the time teams reach Clinton Creek Road.

What goes up must come down, and teams will lose all that elevation in the 30 miles (48 km) on Clinton Creek Road.

Both the Fortymile and Yukon rivers open up the possibility of both jumble ice and overflow. Additionally, with no Yukon Quest trail on that stretch of the Yukon River, teams will have “a more challenging wilderness race” as the race’s website so beautifully understates.

This may be the tale of two halves, as the two legs of the race hold the possibility of being wildly different.

How to stay up to date

Yukon Sports Report will be at the start and the finish, providing up-to-the-minute updates via social media and this website.

The race has an online tracker, which can be viewed here, as well as a Facebook page which will also feature updates. It will also be covered by local radio station CFYT, here.