Yukon Quest 350 and 200 get underway

The 2022 YQ350 and YQ200 races started Feb. 5 in Fairbanks, Alaska, at 11 a.m. local time on an overcast morning with temperatures hovering around -15 C.

Racing started with the seven mushers in the 350-mile (560-kilometre) race making the steep descent from the Big I parking lot down into a sweeping left turn onto the Chena River as hundreds of spectators lined the banks of the river and stood looking down from the Barnette Street bridge.

Leaving in three minute intervals, the YQ350 mushers were all soon on the trail and the 11 YQ200 mushers followed immediately after on the 40-mile (65-km) run into the Pleasant Valley (Two Rivers) checkpoint.

Rob Cooke, the lone Yukoner in the YQ350, was the sixth musher out of the chute and the veteran was in his trademark high spirits before the race.

“The team are good; I’m the usual depressed member of the team,” Cooke said with a chuckle. “(The dogs) all passed vet checks really (well). Their weights are really good.”

And as far as the racing, Cooke was cautiously optimistic.

“Trail conditions seem good,” Cooke said. “It sounds like it’s going to be tough once we get out of Two Rivers. Sounds like they’ve had a lot of trouble putting the trail in.”

The weather around the Steese Highway and the Quest trail has been particularly unpleasant this year, a number of locals said, and blowing snow can make the Eagle and Rosebud summits very challenging – and subject to wide variation over the course of a race.

“It is what it is,” Cooke said.

Another Yukoner, Connor McMahon, was making his Yukon Quest debut in the YQ200.

“I’m feeling surprisingly calm, actually,” McMahon said before the race. “The dogs are nice and calm, ready to go. They realize what we’re here to do now. They’ve kind of been wondering, but beautiful temperatures (and we’re) ready to do this.”

As a rookie in the race, McMahon is tackling the trail with fresh eyes, and his eighth position in the YQ200 start order put him in a solid spot to get into the swing of things.

“I don’t know the trail, I don’t really know what conditions to expect, so we’re just going to play it by ear,” McMahon said. “We’ve got that floating rest, that’s going to be awesome – I’m definitely going to take advantage of that. No rush really to get anywhere, so just nice and slow. See what those conditions are like and how the dogs are reacting to them.”

Yuka Honda, another YQ200 musher (and Iditarod and Yukon Quest 1,000 finisher), is billed from Healy, Alaska, but has strong ties to the Yukon and started immediately after McMahon.

Aside from the flexible rest option – teams are able to rest along the trail in 30 minute increments that count towards their total rest requirements – the most intriguing part of this year’s races is the fact YQ350 mushers will tackle both Eagle and Rosebud summits twice.

Typically a crucial part in both the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) and 300-mile (480-km) races, summiting the pair in opposite directions will be a first – something three-time Quest winner Brent Sass is looking forward to.

“I’m excited. It’s never been done, so we’re doing it for the first time. Usually you’ve got to wait a whole year to go up Eagle Summit the other way, and this year we get to do both of them in one go,” Sass said before the race. “I think it’ll be great. It’ll be a great test for the dogs and the humans.”

Start order

1 Jennifer LaBar1 Simon Mettler
2 Cody Strathe2 Matt Sprau
3 Matt Hall3 Dylan Robins
4 Misha Wiljes4 Shaynee Traska
5 Brent Sass5 Amanda Otto
6 Rob Cooke6 DJ Starr
7 Deke Naaktgeboren7 Dan Kaduce
8 Connor McMahon
9 Yuka Honda
10 Justin Olnes
11 Lauro Eklund
The start orders for the YQ350 and YQ200, beginning in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Start photos