2018 Yukon Quest: Dream Chasers
As I write these lines, the Yukon Quest and Iditarod both have long come to an end. The Iditarod has a new champion with Joar Leifseth Ulsom. The last time a musher not named Seavey won Iditarod was 2011 with John Baker. 2011 was also the year that Allen Moore ran his first Yukon Quest and the last time I ran the race myself. That year, the Quest was dominated by bad weather, a storm over American Summit, completely blown-in trail on the Yukon River, deep overflow on Birch Creek, coupled with -45°F and another windy crossing over Eagle Summit.
That experience must have hooked Allen Moore, as he has been coming back ever since and just notched his third
Yukon Quest victory. And, boy, did he accomplish that in style, as he also brought all 14 dogs to the finish line in Whitehorse. Not surprisingly did that earn Allen Moore the coveted Veterinarians Choice award. Allen has never been out of the Top 3 since 2012 and also holds the fastest winning time with 8 days 14 hours and 53 minutes.
This year, his winning time was a full 28 hours slower.
2018 was a year dominated by cold weather. Not record cold, but consistent cold of -30°F to -40°F for the first six to seven days of the race. The race alternates the start and finish cities and it started in Fairbanks, Alaska and finished in Whitehorse, Canada.
Once teams were nearing Pelly Crossing, temperatures warmed up and by the time they reached Braeburn, running in the heat of the day became a concern, same as dealing with some pretty deep overflow, created by the sudden warmup.
For many mushers, winning a 1,000-mile race is not the primary goal. Especially in the Yukon Quest there are usually only a handful of teams having a realistic shot at a top spot. Previous Quest champions Allen Moore, Hugh Neff and Matt Hall entered this year’s race along with 23 other teams. The Quest had about a third of the mushers compared to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, which started two weeks later.
Eleven of the 26 Yukon Quest mushers were rookies and for a number of them running the Yukon Quest was about chasing a dream. Take German-based musher Bernhard Schuchert. He had previously run the Iditarod, has finished the Finnmarksløpet and Femund Race. Schuchert had set his eyes on the Quest several times but the huge logistical challenges prevented his participation until this year. Even then, his plans didn’t firm up until the middle of January.
Other European mushers like Torsten Kohnert have now found a way to run the race regularly. And yet others, like Severin Cathry have come oh so tantalizing close to the starting line. Last year, Cathry was pulled from the race rooster a few weeks before the race due to having missed dog vaccinations. In so many different ways, just making it to the starting line of the Yukon Quest is a huge accomplishment.
Some of you might wonder: How do the dogs get from Germany to Alaska? Here in Alaska, freight airlines like Northern Air Cargo and Alaska Airlines are experienced flying sled dogs in and out of Nome, Bethel or
Kotzebue. This is not the case with regular flights on Lufthansa or other main airlines. Typically they only fly two dogs per plane as baggage. With a special exception for a sporting event, Schuchert was able to fly four dogs per plane, but that meant four separate flights had to be taken. Some dogs came from Stockholm, others from Germany, all via Seattle to finally arrive in Fairbanks at various day and nighttime hours.
His sled, dog coats, winter gear, all had to be flown, too. Stuffing all of that gear in a dog truck for any North American musher is a feat, so adding this flying to the mix made the whole undertaking mind boggling.
Schuchert made it to the starting line with all of his 14 dogs, accompanied by his handlers Signe, Tina and his son Florian. I remember trying to calm him down, that a warmup was predicted. Well, that warmup did not come and I am sure he cussed me on Birch Creek.
It was fun watching all the different teams at the starting line.
Anything from super calm, cool and collected teams to others going absolutely ballistic. Schuchert and Florian were a father-son/musher -handler team. Jennifer and Jason Campeau, from Alberta, Canada, ran the race as a husband and wife team. Talking to Jason Campeau after the race he said having his whole family involved, both his daughters as well has his brother and dad, was one of the main parts that made the Yukon Quest so important to him.
As Jason was driving the A string and his wife Jennifer driving the B team, they did not plan on traveling
together. The main goal was to get as many healthy dogs to the finish line as possible, and then pick the best dogs out of that pool for the Iditarod. Talk about logistics again: packing food drops for three 1,000-mile race teams. I did the same back in 2009 and really questioned my sanity in the process. Walking around the staging area I could not
help but wonder, who of these teams would reach Whitehorse and who’s dream would get shattered along the way. Under the clear blue sky, with cheering crowds, little did we now that only 50 percent of the starting mushers would reach the finish line in Whitehorse.
Run-Rest schedules are a much-discussed topic amongst mushers. Schuchert had quizzed me before the race about a schedule. It included a rest en route to Two Rivers. The checkpoint actually sits much closer to Angel Creek than Two Rivers. Most mushers broke that run into two runs, resting short after the Mile 27 Chena Hot Springs Road Crossing. There is a big open meadow, and I counted nine teams resting right there. A few mushers ran straight through to the checkpoint. That is rather risky business in cold temperatures. Hugh Neff was the first team into Two Rivers and his race did not go well from there. Camping out in bitter cold is definitely a consideration for some mushers. Dave Dalton, for example, camped right beside the Two Rivers Laundromat where he could go inside and warm up.
Some mushers broke the run to Two Rivers in two almost equal parts, while others ran close to the checkpoint, rested and then blew through the checkpoint to continue on to Mile 101. The front pack consisting of Allen Moore, Matt Hall and Paige Drobny formed early on into the race, followed by rookie Nathaniel Hamlin. Hamlin only started with 12 dogs and got a rude awakening after the second tough run. He had to leave four team mates behind in Mile 101, just the second checkpoint into the race. He ended up running with that team of eight dogs all the way to Braeburn and then finished with seven dogs in Whitehorse, bringing home the red lantern. Mile 101 also saw the race coming to an end for Mike Ellis, who cited sick dogs.
Jason Campeau’s team also came down with a virus, as well as a few others. The run to Mile 101 would prove to be the beginning of bigger problems for Campeau. He explained to me how he came upon Hugh Neff’s team, which had stalled out on the steep slopes of Rosebud Summit. Things took a turn for the worse when Neff’s dogs decided to head back down the mountain in the direction they came from and Campeau trying to prevent them from doing that. He wiped out, hit the ground hard and blacked out. Campeau, coming from a professional hockey background, said he is used to working through pain and even broken bones. Pain resistance is expected in that career, so he just shrugged of his fall and told himself to toughen it out.
Going up Rosebud from the Two Rivers side is pretty steep. Then the trail levels out for a short little bit, before taking another turn to the left with the steepest uphill pitch. Christine Roalofs was stuck on this portion of the trail. The Quest 300 starts a few hours after the 1,000-mile mushers leave and the front runners of the Quest 300 usually end up passing the back-of-the-pack Quest mushers. Roalofs was in the process of carrying all her gear up on foot when Quest 300 musher Jacob Heigers came along. It must have been quite the scene with loose dogs milling around everywhere. He helped getting some of her stuff to the top. A short while later, on the downhill side, Heigers was in for a surprise. Roalofs’ team was catching up to him fast, but driverless. Stopping his own team he made sure to secure Christine´s team before continuing down the trail.
Checkpoint Mile 101 used to be a dog drop only, before becoming a checkpoint. Peter Kamper was known to run the checkpoint with much pride and now Georgeanne Hampton and her crew are carrying the torch for legendary hospitality, and bacon. An endless supply of bacon.
Leaving Mile 101 the infamous Eagle Summit is looming. Coming from the Fairbanks side the ascent is not as steep as coming from Central, and teams are also much fresher. That being said, going downhill with a supercharged team can be unpleasant. Both Campeau and Schuchert commented on how pleasant Eagle Summit was this year with calm and near perfect conditions. There was enough snow on the downhill side to slow teams down. Schuchert’s sled is equipped with a chain brake system, which adds a lot of drag on downhills, but with all the excitement he said, “ I forgot to release the chains, and next thing I knew I was going down. It definitely is as steep as people make it out to be. I can see that going up that slope with a tired team can be a real problem.”
It is only a short, but intense run from Mile 101 to Central. Many teams ran it in under four hours, yet they elected to stop in the checkpoint. Great food in the roadhouse might have something to do with that. The top five mushers remained the same with Allen Moore, Paige Droby, Matt Hall, Laura Neese and Torsten Kohnert.
Getting dogs to eat properly in these colder temperatures was a must, even if a team had a virus. Campeau said, “ When I offered my dogs a meal about half an hour after I got to Central, not one dog even looked at it. With that I knew I had to stay much longer than I had planned. When I gave them another meal four hours later, they all ate again.” He ended up staying nearly nine hours. In Central, the race ended for Mark Stamm from Washington, who had taken a 20-year hiatus from running the Quest and likely realized how much had changed since.
Birch Creek is known to be cold. Very cold. Bone chilling deep cold. No exception in 2018. Surprisingly a high number of mushers camped out for anywhere from two and a half to five hours along the way. Most frontrunners had pulled over to camp. Matt Hall seemed to have an “off” run on Birch Creek, as Allen Moore passed him on the fly and made almost 45 minutes on him during this one run alone. In Circle, the checkpoint building is the fire hall and all mushers sought a break from the cold there. Many long eight-hour and longer rests were taken, which is rather unusual for this point in the race. Schuchert was down to 17th place leaving Circle and Campeau had dropped to 15th place. Campeau left Circle minutes before his wife Jennifer would arrive in the checkpoint.
Circle is one of the turning points in the race. Up until this point distances between checkpoints are moderate. Now comes the first 160-mile unsupported stretch of trail. It is not surprising that teams, which are doubtful about their ability to continue pull the plug here. This year it was four teams: Rookies Ike Underwood and Christine Roalofs
did not get to finish their dream as well as veterans Katherine Keith and Ryne Olson. Olson left the checkpoint after dropping four dogs, to turn around after a few miles down the trail. Scratching out of a race is never easy. Been there done that myself at exact the same checkpoint in 1999. It leads to months of re-playing different scenarios: “ Where did things go wrong? What should I have done differently?”
The stretch from Circle via Eagle to Dawson is off the road system. There are no dog handlers waiting in Eagle, instead they are on a race of their own driving a 1,500 miles to Dawson City. Actual driving time alone is about 24 hours, never mind breakdowns or waiting for plow trucks to open Eagle Summit back up. Besides a few uninhabited but open cabins along the way there are to two spots mushers can count on. First up is Slaven’s Roadhouse, which is run by the National Park Service and then there is Trout Creek, a private cabin owned by Mike Sager. Both places have
a distinct advantage in these cold temperatures: They are getting teams off the river, into the trees, which usually is quite a few degrees warmer to camp out. It is also a good thing that Slaven’s is a dog drop. A veterinarian is stationed there, too. Luc Twedell, for example, dropped three dogs there, going from 12 to nine dogs.
Between Circle and Eagle Allen Moore was slowly beginning to widen the gap between him and the teams chasing him. He arrived three and a half hours before Paige Drobny, who was the only musher to even catch a glimpse of him in Eagle. Matt Hall of Eagle was greeted by his parents Scarlett and Wayne, who also run the checkpoint. Laura Neese and Vebjron Aishana Reitan rounded out the top five. There is a mandatory four hour rest break in Eagle. Only Allen Moore stayed that short, with all other teams took six to eight hour rests there, which is rather unusual. It can be contributed to the continued cold weather, which makes every task so much slower and painful, especially putting on booties.
The run from Eagle to Dawson would see race officials have their hands full. Deep cold was a continued factor. From Circle to Eagle Jason Campeau had climbed from 15th place to leaving Eagle in 6th place. The dogs were over their virus and firing on all cylinders again. It pays to rest when the team needs it. Not the same could be said for Jason’s own health. The run to Dawson is traditionally run in three equal runs. One to the 40 Mile River Bridge, one to the mouth of the 40 Mile River and one run to Dawson. Other than Ed Hopkins all teams opted for this version. Hopkins did two long runs stopping on the 40 Mile River near the border. Notably in this year’s Quest very few crazy long runs were done and the race was run a bit more traditionally, which also showed in the slower overall finishing times. That was nice to see, as it also kept the dogs speeds up and avoided the 1,000-mile shuffle.
When Jason started bedding his team down at the 40 Mile River he realized things were going south quickly.“ I kept on stumbling and falling down,” he said. “My vision was becoming blurred and I could feel tingling in my arms. I wanted to shake myself to wake up, but realized I was going down.” He ended up pressing the Help button on the tracker. When help arrived on a snowmachine they found Campeau laying in the snow with his parka open and only wearing thin liner gloves. They drove him to a nearby cabin to warm up. “The husband, wife and son in that cabin were super people. They put me in warm blankets and drove my dogs back to put them in their shop on straw,” he said. Campeau’s memories are somewhat blurry from the happenings. A nurse snowmachined from Eagle and wanted to arrange transport to a hospital asap. Yet nightfall prevented that and they had to wait till the next day, where a military helicopter took Campeau to a Fairbanks hospital.
His wife Jennifer at the same time had struggles of her own reaching Eagle, with a team of younger and less experienced dogs. For both mushers the race ended here and a huge logistical undertaking began. Ultimately, all their dogs made it to Dawson City via airplane. Treating Campeau’s concussion took him to Vancouver, Calgary and to an Edmonton specialist. This was for sure not the ending the Campeau family had hoped for after putting this much effort into preparing for three 1,000-mile races. One fall on Rosebud Summit ended a whole year worth of preparation, yet Campeau has no regrets. “It is hard to get my mind around not reaching a goal. It is time to turn around, get healthy again and look into the future. I never thought that dogsledding would give me the worst concussion of my life,” he said. In his rookie year in 2015, Jason finished seventh in the Quest and 18th in Iditarod. The Quest has not been kind to him ever since. “The hardest part is learning to deal with adversity. The Quest can throw punches at you from so many different sides,” he said. When talking on the phone we both agreed: Racing is just an extension of life.
Jason was not the only team running into trouble during this stretch of the race. Rookie Severin Cathry got stalled out along the Taylor Highway. His leaders balked and dog food rapidly become more scarce. It is a challenge for a musher to run someone else’s dogs, which Severin was learning the hard way during this run. There was some confusion about him requesting help and after initially being withdrawn the decision was overturned and Severin was able to leave Dawson City. Unfortunately the leader problems persisted and he turned back to Dawson to scratch. When talking to him at the Iditarod start, the emotions from that experience were still raw. It has been several years for him to chase the dream of finishing the Quest and the chase is not over yet. The race ended even more tragically for Hugh Neff, whose dog Boppy died at Clinton Creek. His team needed further assistance to reach Dawson City, where scratched from the race.
The run from Clinton Creek to Dawson was everything but pleasant temperature wise. Besides being -40°F at night, there was a breeze along certain stretches of the river, making it even colder.
Dawson City is a place to recharge for mushers and dogs alike. It is a 36-hour-stop in which the dog handlers are allowed to assist the mushers. Normally the dogs are parked across the Yukon River in the government campground. Due to unsafe ice conditions that checkpoint was moved to a field near the Bonanza Motel a few miles out of town. That had one big advantage. Distances from the hotel to the dog yard were very short. Schuchert commented on how great it was to be able to walk from his hotel room over to his dogs in no time, without needing a ride in a vehicle. Ever since Eagle, he said, his dogs found their grove and finally ate well. It was interesting to hear Bernhard’s perspective on checkpoints and hospitality stops, as he can compare them to the races in Scandinavia.
He was full of praise. “ The big difference is that there are less teams in the Quest and it feels a lot more personal.”
Dawson City was also the end of the dream for Torsten Kohnert who arrived in eighth place with 13 dogs, yet decided it was in the best interest to scratch. His dogs had not been eating well. Of course, now a few weeks later, the decision is nagging at him.
Only 15 to 26 teams left for Pelly Crossing, recharged after 36 hours of food, sleep, food and more sleep. And lots of massages. It’s a long run to Pelly Crossing, 210 miles with no checkpoint nor food drop. One of Schuchert’s constant struggles throughout the race was that he drove a relatively small sled. He half joked having a small sled also had an advantage. “I was traveling a lot faster uphill than some other teams,” he said.
Leaving Dawson City race leader Allen Moore was in a league of his own, leaving almost eight hours ahead of second place team Paige Drobny. Matt Hall was hot on her heels a little less than an hour later. Those two teams would mostly travel and camp together on their way to Pelly, without even catching a glimpse of Moore. There are a lot of hills on this run. The first is King Solomon Dome right after leaving Dawson. From there the trail goes all the way down to the Indian River, just to climb up all the way to Eureka Summit again. Reportedly, the trail was in good shape this year with next to no sidehilling, which can be a real challenge on King Solomon with a fully loaded sled.
Most teams opted for four runs with stopping near the Indian River bridge, stopping at Scroggy Creek, then either before or in Stepping Stone. Notably Matt Hall ran 14 dogs all the way to Pelly, which is
quite a feat in dog care during such a cold race.
Allen Moore who had stopped in Stepping Stone for Burritos or Lasagna, or both, only stayed a mere 12 minutes in Pelly before continuing towards Carmacks, or better said McCabe Creek dog drop where he ended up pulling over for a nice long rest. His nearest competitor, Matt Hall would not arrive in Pelly for another nine hours.
Hall was neck on neck with Paige Drobny. She must have seen signs in her team that they need more rest, as she stayed one and a half hours longer than Hall. With that, she allowed Ed Hopkins, Laura Neese and Vebjorn Reitan to come within striking distance of her. Sure enough both Neese and Reitan passed her en route to Carmacks. In Carmacks, Drobny did not stop and I wonder how much she regretted that decision later on. She wanted to break up the run from Pelly to Braeburn in three more equal runs. It is only four hours from Pelly to McCabe. Then about five and a half hours to Carmacks followed by a long 11-hour or more run to Braeburn.
Drobny rested past McCabe, then pulled over for a planned stop about three hours past Carmacks. Unfortunately her dogs did not agree on that schedule. They would not continue towards Braeburn after that campout. This once again shows the punches the Yukon Quest Trail can throw.
Now what exactly happened here? “It is something which started way early in the race. The dogs were simply
not getting along. I had dogs fighting going up Rosebud Summit. They were like oil and water. Sometimes fighting over straw sometimes over a food bowl. With each progressing day the crabbiness was spreading further through the team. Everybody was afraid of running in lead, because of the growling behind. So when I pulled out of that cabin, I had two choices: To deal with it for another 150 miles or to go back to Carmacks and go back to the drawing board from there.”
Bernhard Schuchert had mentioned to me, that when he left Carmacks, that he had head on passes with two dog teams. Did he hallucinate? He sure enough did not. Drobny was able to shed light on that story. Not only did veterinarian Mercedes Pinto and musher Didier Moggia come out to check on her via snowmachine. Cody Strathe also hooked up a team of dogs he had on the truck while training for Iditarod. That was the second team.
Up until this run out of Carmacks, the whole trail had been much harder and better than Schuchert anticipated. Then things changed. The trail across Mandana Lake was completely blown in and it was snowing heavily in warm temperatures. That made for a very long run into Braeburn, a little more than 15 hours. It did not help that knee-deep overflow had formed about eight miles before the checkpoint. This last run from Carmacks proved to be too much for yet another team. Rookie Claudia Wickert ended her race in the last checkpoint.
Only 13 teams of 26 remained in the race.
While some mushers had their dream shattered, a few others had a run of a lifetime. Allen Moore finished in first place with all 14 dogs that he started with. Matt Hall finished in second place. Laura Neese finished a strong third place and rookie Vebjron Reitan came in fourth with a very nice looking team. Ed Hopkins notched a top five place. About 10 hours later Tim Pappas finished with a team from Matt Failor’s 17th Dog Kennel in Willow.
Bernhard Schuchert reached the finish line in seventh place. That placing far exceeded his expectations. “ Just staying in the race this year, was the trick to climbing up places, with so many teams dropping out,” he said. That is something Schuchert is used to, as races like the Finnmarksløpet often has a very high percentage of scratches, too.
Each musher in this year’s Quest could write a book about their own personal journey, as they were all chasing their own personal dream. For 13 brave souls, that dream became reality. For 13 others, the chase continues and many are already planning for 2019.