Mushers ready for first Yukon Quest races

While the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile International Sled Dog Race won’t be happening in its entirety this winter, mushing fans have plenty to look forward to thanks to a total of four races taking place under the Quest banner this February.

First up are a pair of races in Alaska, the YQ350 and YQ200, beginning at 11 a.m. on Feb. 5 from the Big I in Fairbanks, Alaska.

A lot has changed – both with respect to the Quest and the world – since the last 1,000-mile race ended nearly two years ago.

Here’s a primer on the upcoming races this weekend, including where they’re headed, who’s racing and what it took to make it happen.

Plan ‘C’

When the Quest’s Alaskan cohort announced the latest changes to the race on the first of the month, it was at least the second major change to the race since planning began and made some pretty big changes to the trail.

Earlier plans to start in Tok, Alaska, and include a stop in Chicken, Alaska, were cancelled, as well as plans to race into and out of Eagle, Alaska.

Race Marshal Doug Grilliot told YSR that the trail conditions simply weren’t up to snuff, and coupled with the long runs and length of time required for the trail to remain open, it wasn’t feasible for the volunteers and organizers to hold the race there safely.

“(The trailbreakers) did get down there and they did get back, but my head trailbreaker said he just wouldn’t really recommend doing it – trying to keep that much trail open for the four days it would take to get in and back with the amount of snow,” Grilliot said, explaining extra snow on that stretch of trail wasn’t always a good thing.

“Usually extra snow is good, but any little breeze comes up and it just immediately obliterates your trail.”

Cutting out Eagle also had the bonus of removing the requirement for mushers to have drop bags prepared in advance – something that made things logistically more difficult, particularly for Canadian teams.

And so, as of two days before the race, here’s the route as it stands.

From the start at the Big I in downtown Fairbanks, teams will follow the usual Yukon Quest trail to Two Rivers before continuing to Mile 101 and on to Central.

Once in Central, the routes for the two races diverge slightly. Mushers in the YQ200 will do a 70-mile (110-km) loop further along the trail to Medicine Lake, returning to Central for the finish. Those racing in the YQ350 will complete that loop and then race back to Fairbanks along the initial trail in reverse to the finish.

Although the race is some 200 miles (320 km) shorter than what was initially planned, this race will not be easy as teams in the YQ350 will have to tackle both Eagle and Rosebud summits twice in order to finish the race. Typically weather plays a large factor in that stretch of the race in a normal year, so one can only imagine what two unfortunately-timed weather events could do to the standings and the running times.

One other thing to note about this year’s race is that the mandatory rest for teams can be taken along the trail and will be counted in 30 minute increments. The change is hoped to be a major positive for dog care, allowing teams to rest wherever and whenever is best rather than being forced to wait for or remain at checkpoints. With tracker technology as ingrained as it is into modern-day mushing, this new idea could have ripples across long- and mid-distance racing.

As of Feb. 3, there are seven mushers in the YQ350 and 12 in the YQ200.

Some of the notable names in the YQ350 are Yukoner Rob Cooke and past Quest winners Brent Sass and Matt Hall.

In the YQ200, Connor McMahon is the lone Yukoner as he makes his Quest debut.

YQ350 AlaskaYQ200 Alaska
Misha WiljesYuka Honda
Jennifer LaBarConnor McMahon
Brent SassJustin Olnes
Matt HallAmanda Otto
Cody StratheDerek JA Starr
Rob CookeSamantha LaLonde
Deke NaaktgeborenMatt Sprau
Lauro Eklund
Simon Mettler
Dan Kaduce
Shaynee Traska
Dylan Robins
The list of YQ 350 and YQ 200 mushers as of midday on Feb. 3, 2022. Racing gets underway in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Cooke preparing team for Iditarod

Rob Cooke at his kennel in Mount Lorne on Feb. 2, 2022. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon Sports Report)

Following the finish of the 2020 Yukon Quest, Cooke and his team started a planned year off. It was perhaps luck – good or bad – that it just happened to coincide with a global pandemic.

“Even before the pandemic, we decided we were going to take last winter off and we just relaxed,” Cooke said. “We trained, but we didn’t train anywhere near as intensely. It was nice for myself and the dogs, I think.”

And this year, his focus was always going to be on the Iditarod. His last showing ended in a scratch, and the 50th anniversary seemed like an excellent reason to return.

“It was always the plan to do (the Iditarod) this year and I always wanted to do one of the other (Quest races) to prepare.”

After truck trouble kept him out of the Copper Basin 300 and made it difficult to get drop bags ready for Eagle, he decided to drop out.

Fate, however, had other ideas as the newly changed routes put the race back in Cooke’s grasp.

Cooke asked if he could run the YQ200 instead of the YQ550, but was told the YQ550 was now the YQ350 and now included day-of vet checks and no remote drop bags.

“I thought well, I’ll go for it,” Cooke said.

His team is experienced – at least 10 of his dogs have run the Quest before – but he’ll have some new leaders looking to gain some miles up front in a race.

That previous experience is sure to be a bonus for the majority of the trace, but Cooke said tackling the summits twice might be a hard sell to those that know what’s coming.

“I’ve got no concerns particularly getting to Central the first time, but I think when we turn around to go back, it’s going to be interesting to see how the dogs react,” Cooke said. “They know the trail so well. They know when we start to head back out of Central, … that next is usually the summits.”

But one thing Cooke won’t be concerned about is getting ahead of the field – at least in the beginning.

“The teams that go out and run too far at the very start of the race are the ones that don’t make it to the finish line.”

Sound advice any year, but especially with a double dose of Eagle and Rosebud summits.

McMahon keen to tackle the Quest trail

Connor McMahon during the Carbon Hill Race in Mount Lorne on Jan. 16, 2022. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon Sports Report)

McMahon’s mushing journey started like so many before him – with a dog. In this case, a pet malamute with a bit too much energy.

“I rescued a malamute and couldn’t hike him enough in a day,” McMahon said in an interview. “I ended up teaching him to pull a toboggan full of snow and then that evolved into making a little kick sled out of some cross-country skis.”

Originally from southern Ontario, at that point in his life he was in Yellowknife helping Aaron Peck prepare for the Iditarod for a pair of winters.

“That was kind of my entry into mushing and how the doors all opened.”

It’s been a successful few years for McMahon, now based in Carcross, as last winter he won the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, finished sixth in the Yukon Journey and was second in the Silver Sled. The winter before he won the Canadian Challenge 200 and the Caledonia Classic.

He said that he and his team have always been looking towards long-distance races like the Yukon Quest.

“Long distance, yeah, that’s what we’re aiming to get into,” McMahon said. “I’m building the team right now. We have a young team, and once the qualifiers are ready and the team is all ready, we’ll be doing the 1,000-mile for sure – hopefully next year.”

For now though, McMahon and company will be focused on the YQ200 and perhaps the Quest Cup – an extra prize only teams who compete in a Quest race on both sides of the border will be eligible to win. If things stay as they are, it’s looking like a two horse race between him and Sass.