Sled, bark and go! Yukon Quest 2023 departs Whitehorse
The Shipyards Park parking lot in Whitehorse was buzzing with excitement and barking on Saturday morning as mushers got ready with their dogs to embark on the 2023 Yukon Quest.
Amidst the furry chaos, however, a female musher stood quietly by her sled – with no overly excited dogs in sight.
“We’ve had them all our lives,” Debbie Knight, who runs her dogs in the 100-mile race, told CBC News.
“They are just family, they are all different. I always say, ‘If we let them run free in the yard, it’s like a school yard on recess’… We tend to let them do their business back in the kennel, it keeps them calm. That’s why it’s so quiet here.”
This is the first year in the Quest’s 38-year history that one of the races will end in Dawson City, and the second year that it was not an international race across the Alaskan border. This year, 16 mushers with teams of up to 12 dogs will compete for prize money.
You see the difference between the true born leader and a dog who just runs out because he has to. Some dogs are born to follow and some are born to lead.”
– Musher Mayla Hill
The racers had the option of a 100 mile (160 km) race to Braeburn, a 250 mile (402 km) race to Pelly Crossing and a 450 mile (724 km) race to Dawson City.
The event brings together participants from different backgrounds, ages and experiences.
Knight, 67, says she believes she may be the oldest contestant in this year’s quest. She says she’ll be on the lookout for beginners.
“There comes a time when you just… don’t worry about your time because people are more important, dogs are more important,” she said. “We always help each other out there.”
With more than 30 years of dog running experience, this is Knight’s second time competing in this race.
“I decided as I got older that this could be my last year, so I wanted to get there and do it,” Knight said.
“I plan to continue running dogs, maybe not racing because of the stress. I like to relax and enjoy the dogs. Just have [them] is good for the mind and soul. When you’re out there, there’s such a bond with them. It’s an incredible relationship.”
Musher Mayla Hill, of Grand Prairie, Alta., grabbed her sled just feet from Knight.
Hill, 19, is among the youngest participants and runs the longest distance – the 450-mile race.
“The biggest thing today is to finish this race,” she told CBC News.
While the age difference and racing experience between Hill and Knight is palpable, what binds them together is their love and passion for dogs – reflecting the essence of the race, carried across generations over the past 39 years.
“Confidence has a longer, harder run,” Hill said of her dogs.
“When you have a storm with your lead dog and you can’t even see him, but somehow he knows the way… those are the things that build confidence… You see the difference between the true born leader and a dog that just walks out.” , because he has to. Some dogs are born to follow and some are born to lead.”
A groundbreaking legacy
Frank Turner, who was part of the group that planned the original 1984 race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, was among the crowd on Saturday.
Turner, a veteran musher and former Yukon Quest champion who has raced the race dozens of times, cheered with emotion at the final edition of the race.
“We may love the mushers, but what makes this race is the dogs,” Turner said.
“They were part of the history and culture of the north. This is just a celebration of that.”
He dedicates the Yukon Quest to his friend, the musher Bruce Johnson. Johnson was also a member of the original group that met with their colleagues in Alaska to create the 1000-mile Yukon Quest.
In 1993, while training for the Quest, he and his dogs broke through the ice on Little Atlin Lake, south of Whitehorse.
“He died doing what he was passionate about,” Turner said, adding that this memorial service was intended to serve as a reminder that the Yukon’s environment was undergoing major changes.”
The Yukon Quest race starts regardless of the weather and lasts 10 to 16 days until the last dog team reaches the finish line.
With files by Meribeth Deen