YUKON QUEST 2006
Mackey wins toughest Quest yet.The 2006 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race will go down in history for several reasons. From overflow, to a blizzard that forced a third of the field out of the race, to a re-routed trail, to a new race record, this year’s running of the world’s toughest sled dog race had a little of everything. Kasilof’s Lance Mackey won the race for the second consecutive year in a record 10 days, seven hours and 47 minutes despite taking a wrong turn about 50 miles from the finish line. (The previous record was set in 1995 by Quest legend Frank Turner in 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes.) Three-time champion Hans Gatt from Atlin, BC, came in 45 minutes behind Mackey in second place while Carcross racer William Kleedehn was third, coming in just six minutes behind Gatt. Mackey’s trail blunder cost him a few hours and, he said minutes after crossing the finish line, he thought it had cost him the race. “I started apologizing to the dogs,” Mackey said. “When I figured out that we took the wrong trail, I wanted to cry like a baby. I thought it was over.”This year’s trail, which was to run 1000 miles from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, had to be altered due to sparse snow cover on the last quarter of the traditional route into Whitehorse. The route change, which was voted on by mushers at the mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson City, Yukon, ran from Dawson 200 miles to the Pelly Crossing checkpoint and then back on the same trail to the finish line in Dawson. The new race route was slightly shorter than 1000 miles and forced mushers up and over the 4,002-foot King Solomon’s Dome twice, making the new route tougher than the traditional trail. On the return trip from Pelly Crossing, Mackey stopped at the Scroggie Creek dog-drop-turned-checkpoint, where mushers were to take their mandatory eight-hour layover before making the final push to the finish, while Gatt, who came into the final checkpoint about 45 minutes ahead of Mackey, stayed for an extra four hours. Gatt made the decision to stay for a total of 12 hours because he ran his dogs the 100 miles from Pelly without a long rest and, he said at the finish, his team needed a substantial break. Kleedehn stayed for 13 hours. However, if either Gatt or Kleedehn had left after the mandatory eight hours, or even an hour earlier than they did, they may have been able to beat Mackey to the finish due to Mackey’s wrong turn on the Dome. But, agreed the two Canadians, neither would have wanted to win because of another musher’s navigational error. “Is that true, he got lost?” Kleedehn asked race marshal Mike McCowan at the finish line. “What a disaster. Under those circumstances, I’m glad he was first here.”As with any Yukon Quest, the decision to rest and run plays into the musher’s overall strategy. Typically, mushers will give their teams equal rest in the first half of the race and gradually cut back as the dogs become stronger and find their running groove. Mind games at checkpoints and on the trail are also a big part of the strategy, though most competitive veterans don’t disclose their secret plans to anyone. Some in this year’s race, however, were seen camping out on the trail waiting for their closest competitors to pass and break the trail ahead. Or, in the checkpoints, mushers will fib to each other about how long they plan to rest there. Some even lie about how long they themselves intend to sleep, wait for their competitors to lie down for a catnap, and then scoot back out onto the trail.It’s all part and parcel to any dog race, said veteran Quester and one of this year’s race judges, Thomas Tetz, of Tagish, Yukon. But, he added, for a rookie, the most important thing should be to cross the finish line. And for veterans and rookies alike, finishing the race with a happy, healthy brood of huskies is the foremost in any strategy.Tetz added that checkpoint routines and the efficiency in which the chores are completed are of utmost importance for anyone who wants to be competitive. Keeping the sled bag organized and never taking a wasted trip up or down the gangline is key. Races can be won or lost at the checkpoints, Tetz said. Watching a pro like Mackey is like observing a well-choreographed dance. Up the gangline, booties off; down the gangline, straw is put down; up the gangline, snacks are given, and so on. There isn’t a wasted movement in this winner’s routine. But Mackey and his second-straight victory are but one tale on this year’s Quest, which one race official called the craziest Quest he’s ever seen. The excursion across the rugged terrain of the Alaskan and Yukon interior began pretty much as usual. Twenty-two mushers from near and far set out from Fairbanks to the first checkpoint of Angel Creek, about 100 miles from the start. From there, the teams head east and must face the 3,640-foot Rosebud Summit before crossing a valley into the Mile 101 dog drop and tackling the notorious 3,685-foot Eagle Summit. This year, the overflow and glare ice coming off Rosebud and into 101 was especially bad. Mushers came into 101 battered and bruised after repeatedly falling and dragging trying to get their team safely over the watery, icy trail. Most dog drivers chalked it up to being the Yukon Quest, known for its challenging terrain and obstacles. But if mushers thought they had seen the worst, they couldn’t be more wrong. Around 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 12, fat snowflakes started to fall at the Mile 101 dog drop, signaling bad weather atop Eagle Summit. As the leaders, which at that time included Wasilla’s Kelley Griffin and Hugh Neff who would scratch in Dawson after a discrepancy with the vets and officials, departed for the Central checkpoint, rookie mushers rested their teams at the dog drop until after dark. The winds on the summit picked up to hurricane force, and, coupled with fresh snow, created a whiteout in which mushers couldn’t even see the dogs in front of their sleds. Mackey was third into Central after clearing the summit and quickly told the group of fans and media that he’s never been that scared in his life. Gatt was the first to arrive in Central. “Someone’s going to die up there tonight,” Gatt said, much to the shock of onlookers. As the front pack of teams trickled in, a group of mostly rookies were just beginning their summit ordeal. Jennifer Cochran, a veteran from Fairbanks, and rookies Phil Joy, also of Fairbanks, Yuka Honda, a Japanese citizen living in Healy, Saul Turner, son of Quest legend Frank Turner, Kiara Adams of Whitehorse and Quest 300 musher Jodi Rozmyn of Two Rivers were scattered on the summit when all decided to hunker down and wait out the storm. Cochran, Honda and Turner camped together while Joy, Adams and Rozmyn eventually found each other in the blinding whiteout. Early the next morning when none had arrived at the Central checkpoint, Frank Turner made a plea with officials for action to be taken. Meanwhile, rookie Regina Wycoff of Healy faced her own nightmare on Eagle Summit and arrived in Central around 7 a.m. Monday morning, unknowingly passing the stranded mushers somewhere on the summit that night. Wycoff took off from 101 around 10 p.m. the night before, unaware of the severity of the weather on the mountain. But soon, a wall of ice and snow hit her and her team with a force that nearly knocked her off her sled. “It hurt,” she said, recounting the events at the checkpoint in the wee hours of February 13. “It was like sand hitting me in the face. I couldn’t see anything so I walked in front of my dogs looking for the trail and had to count dogs just to make it back to my sled.” Because the wind was at her back going over the summit, turning around was not an option, she added. Camping was also not in her mind. “I just wanted to get down the hill,” Wycoff said. When she reached the top, she came across Brent Sass and Randy Chappel, two Quest 300 (a shorter qualifying race that takes place simultaneously) mushers who were trying to wait out the storm. Wycoff hollered at them to get back on their sleds and attempt the descent with her. They used the wind’s direction and Sass’s lead dog Silver to chart the course down the summit. Usually covered in a thick layer of snow, the backside of Eagle Summit was almost bare this year causing Wycoff and others to flip and drag behind their sleds on the way down. She would just be able to right herself and would hit another boulder that would send her sled into the air like a toy. Eventually, she didn’t have enough strength to right herself and opted to drag to the bottom. Meanwhile, her counterparts were having trouble just holding on to their teams. Chappel eventually lost control of sled and let go of the handlebar, watching his team of huskies disappear into the raging blizzard. He hopped into Wycoff’s sled and she brought him down the mountain. Nearing the bottom and assuming they were very, very lost, Wycoff, Sass and Chappel stopped to assess the situation and start a fire to warm Chappel’s nearly frozen feet. Wycoff cut up some of her dog coats and wrapped them around Chappel’s feet. After veering into a valley with waist-deep snow and getting stuck in some overflow up to their knees, the trio eventually saw a trail marker and couldn’t believe they had made through the night and the storm that is being touted as the worst in Quest history. As of that morning, six mushers and seven dog teams with a total of 88 dogs were lost somewhere on Eagle Summit in a blizzard that would continue on into the day. Snowmachines were launched from Central in an attempt to find the mushers who spent the night huddled together or alone in their sleds, but the weather forced the volunteer rescuers back to the checkpoint. By early afternoon, planes and helicopters owned by the US military and state troopers were called in to pluck the terrified group off the mountain. And after a search that included a Blackhawk helicopter and infrared technology, all racers and dogs, including the rogue team of Chappel’s, were safe and accounted for back at the Mile 101 dog drop. The ordeal has forced an outcry from the public and mushers about the dangerousness of the Yukon Quest. Some suggestions have been made to plant more permanent tripod markers along the trail going over the summit or even to bypass Eagle Summit all together, though no decisions will be made immediately. “A lot of people risked their lives today,” praised race marshal Mike McCowan in Central.The race got significantly easier, comparatively speaking, after that, though blowing snow caused huge drifts on the trail for the leaders going from Central to Circle and the lead pack had to wait for trail breakers to re-cut the route. American Summit, which can be windy and riddled with tough side-hill sections was no problem for the remaining racers and though the long run on the Forty-Mile and Yukon Rivers from Eagle to Dawson was cold and windy, it was nothing like the mushers had already faced. Oh yeah, throw in some rain in Central and 40 below temperatures on the Pelly River and, all who have been on the Quest trail before agree that this year will go down as the toughest, and strangest, race yet.The rescued mushers from Eagle Summit were out of the race and as it turned out, half the field would not cross the finish line. Yukoner Kyla Boivin, a veteran of the race, who suffered from a severely strained back for the entire Quest, scratched in Pelly crossing, just 200 miles from the finish. After Mackey, Gatt and Kleedehn, Healy’s Dave Dalton was fourth followed by Yukoners Gerry Willomitzer and Sebastian Schnuelle, Kelley Griffin, Michelle Phillips, rookie Ritchie Beattie, Eagle’s Wayne Hall and, a couple days later, the rookie Wycoff of Healy.At the finish line, she flashed her infectious smile and laughed. “I didn’t want the red lantern, but at least I’m here.”Jillian Rogers has covered five Yukon Quests for a Yukon newspaper before recently moving to Fairbanks to pursue her passion for dog mushing.