The Yukon Quest: a community icon in a changing environment

Yukon Quest sled dogs lead
Sled dogs of the 2014 Yukon Quest. / Photo copyright Gene McGill, used with permission

Azara Mohammadi for Frontier Scientists

The Yukon Quest tradition formally began in 1984 as a 1,000-mile sled dog race beginning in Alaska and ending in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The trail commemorates an historic route, dubbed the “Highway of the North,” passed down by mushers since the Arctic Gold Rush era. Prospectors, missionaries, mail carriers, and generally adventurous individuals traveled this historical route prior to the advent of popularly accessible, more modern, forms of transportation.

As the American Yukon Quest executive director, Marti Steury has been responsible for the Alaskan side of this long-distance sled dog race. Steury has acted as executive director for a total of ten years; both the first five years and the most recent five years of the race.

Steury joined the army and moved to Alaska in 1975. A year later she began collecting dogs; by December of 1982 she was keeping 23 sled dogs. That year an army buddy invited her to the first meeting that became the nearly mythicized catalyst for the now-iconic Yukon Quest.

Steury recounted: “There was a gentleman there from Haines Junction who stood up and said, ‘I believe in what you’re doing!’ and wrote a check for his entry fee right there.”

That $500 check which Steury remembers so vividly was the beginning of months of hard work and very late nights for Steury and six of her friends. A year later, Steury was the executive director of the Arctic 1,000-mile [1609 kilometer] international sled dog race that was slated to become a community icon.

As she reflected back on the humble beginnings of the Quest, Steury’s voice became increasingly overwhelmed by emotion. “I am so grateful!” And, “To know that I had a tiny little part of that is really… amazing.”

Changes in technology have altered the role of dogs in human life

Within interior Alaska dogs have worked alongside humans for more than 10,000 years. Some peoples of Eurasia and North America have stories of mythical heroes who interacted with dogs, and some peoples even consider dogs the ancient ancestor of the original human being.

The Siberian Husky, smaller than native Alaskan dogs, was brought to Alaska by Leonhard Seppala during the Alaskan Gold Rush. A combination of indigenous dogs and Seppala’s Huskies comprise the genetic foundation of the modern sled dog. The typical Yukon Quest Husky’s genetic composition has been carefully selected for over many generations of breeders.

Huskies are known for their ability to withstand extreme cold. Like most northern dog breeds, they grow multiple layers of fur that can keep their body temperature up and running even in an Arctic blizzard or whiteout.

Steury has admitted to being “owned by” more that 50 dogs in her lifetime. Although she confessed that her own dogs do not work very hard these days, the historian in her knows that dogs have played a vital role in ancient human history as beasts of burden. She calls dogs “The horse of the Lower 48.”

In the circumpolar North, before snow-machines were introduced in the 1970s, sled dogs were very valuable for transportation purposes. However, dogs’ historic roles in human societies also include guarding and hunting. Various peoples in Scandinavia and north-western Russia are known for training dogs.

Due to changes in human lifestyles and the availability of modern technologies such as planes, trains, and snowmachines (or “snowmobiles” as they are called in the Lower 48), sled dogs have lost many of their functional and extremely helpful roles in human daily life. Expectations have changed.

Working and living closely with dogs, Steury is attuned to the otherwise slight changes that have occurred in sled dog breeds over time. She stated that –even as recently as 30 years ago– Alaskan Huskies were noticeably larger. The example underlines that the physiology of Huskies is being altered as technology makes certain traits obsolete. Now, when the weather is particularly rough, sled dogs wear “Coats, booties, and even compression leggings,” to keep their joints warm.

“Dogs had a lot of jobs, and all their jobs have been outsourced by technology,” said Steury.

In order to engineer faster sled dogs, hound-genes were bred into the American ancestors of the Siberian Husky. In the process, Steury said, they also bred in good feet, joints, and appetites.

“It doesn’t make sense to take a picky eater on a 1,000 mile trip,” she said. She added that dogs are more convenient than horses in an Arctic environment. When traveling long distances over frozen tundra humans have the benefit of being able to feed dogs the same foods they eat and pack for themselves. Horse handlers are not able to share meals with their horses, which makes an impact, although it is a less critical issue south of the Arctic Circle.

Modern-day mushers work hard to calculate their dogs’ optimal diet. “100 years ago you’d just throw them a fish. Now they get a combination of scientifically designed kibble and the fish. This is their [mushers’] science. This is their job. They are constantly on the cutting edge,” explained Steury. She stated: “These dogs are the most efficient athletes on the planet.“ Even the United States military has conducted extensive research on sled dogs.

Modern sled dogs require about twelve to fifteen thousand calories a day while racing on the Yukon Quest’s approximately 1,000-mile trail. Steury gave a reminder that “Dogs process oxygen and calories more efficiently. When it comes to food, the food that you feed the dogs when it’s super cold is entirely different.” Yukon Quest mushers adjust their dogs’ meals according to the weather conditions.

When Arctic conditions bring about that characteristically cold and harsh weather, the dogs’ meals and snacks consist of more fats. “Chicken and beef fats – actual fats that you would solidify and cut up. It’s a constant case of hydrating and snacking,” said Steury.

Trail preparedness and the nature of changing weather conditions

Steury returned to the Yukon Quest in 2009, once again taking up the duties of executive director in Alaska. “It is a privilege to live this close to nature. We’re outside a lot and we live those warm or cold days. When you’re on the back of a dog sled, if it’s quiet you hear the animals breathing and the pat of the dogs’ feet. The stars and the northern lights are surrounding you and you are at one with the world,” she said.

This year Steury and the Yukon Quest, as an organization, had to make some tough decisions. “We didn’t see the 47 degrees above 0 coming,” she recalled. “We’re not in control of the weather here. We just deal with the consequences of it.” The Yukon Quest has to change with the weather and the trail adjusts accordingly.

Yukon Quest sled dog ride
Sled dog team pulling passengers before the 2014 Yukon Quest. Rides were sold to raise money for the race. / Photo copyright Gene McGill, used with permission

The Yukon Quest is actually 2 non-profit organizations (one in each country – the United States and Canada) with five full-time staff, volunteers, seasonal contractors, and remote community volunteers. Steury said: “It takes 1,000 people to race 1,000 miles!”

This year the Quest started February 1st during an unusually warm 2014 winter. 50 miles had to be cut from the 1,000-mile trail, due to overflow on American Summit (an Alaskan mountain pass with an elevation of 3,420 feet [1042.4 meters]). Additionally, 30 miles [48 kilometers] before the finish line had to be cut due to open water on the Yukon River, the third longest river in North America.

Overflow is the result of temperature changes in water, and it could happen even at the top of a mountain. Sometimes river ice cracks and water rises to the surface, where it will freeze, and the process continues. This causes ice to build up, glaciating surrounding areas.

Traditionally the Yukon Quest start line in Fairbanks, Alaska, is located downtown on the frozen Chena River. This year the start and finish lines had to be relocated. Steury believed that although the ice conditions on the river were more than safe for the dog teams and volunteers, conditions were not safe enough for the thousands of spectators and fans that usually pack onto the frozen river to witness, film, and photograph the start of the race. Instead, the start of the race, and the crowd, were moved a couple of blocks away onto the solid and safe streets of downtown Fairbanks.

Though this was a big change, the organization is always prepared to make major changes. “We have rerouted the trail more than not in the past 31 years,” noted Steury. As stated on the official website: “The Yukon Quest Trail is not necessarily a tough trail; but it is a long one.”

Quest trailbreakers are volunteers enlisted from local communities, “So they know their area,” said Steury. Community volunteers are also necessary because some areas of the trail do not offer road access. For example, the residents of Eagle can only leave their town by plane during winter months, because the Taylor highway is not maintained. In such areas, trailbreakers communicate trail conditions and changes to the route that need to be implemented.

“In 31 years there are patterns you can see… definitely we’re in a warming cycle, but we’ve experienced that in the 80s and 90s. You can’t plan, but you can prepare for the super cold weather differently,” said Steury. She remembers one year in particular, 1984, when the Yukon Quest had to reroute around Carkmacks, Yukon, due to slushy weather conditions.

She added: bad weather –either too warm or too cold– can force major changes. Good thing Yukon Quest competitors are up for the challenge.

Yukon Quest sled dogs
Sled dogs of the 2014 Yukon Quest running atop the Chena River in Alaska. Temperatures were around 10 degrees Fahrenheit [-12 degrees Celsius] on the river. / Photo copyright Gene McGill, used with permission
This year, Allen Moore, a veteran Yukon Quest racer with more than 20 years of experience mushing, was awarded his second consecutive victory. Even for an experienced racer Moore made good time: 14 hours and 21 minutes (five hours faster than last year). Moore’s team leader, Quito, was also a Quest Vetran, and won the Golden Harness Award.

Moore was expected to maintain a tight final leg of the race with Brent Sass, another Quest veteran. In past years, Brent Sass has proven his capability as a Quest competitor by helping fellow competitors in need along the trail, earning him three Yukon Quest Sportsmanship Awards. However, this year Sass needed help himself after sustaining a head injury, the result of a fall from his sled. Sass made the decision to stop his team on the trail. He prepared them a meal before his co-competitor, Hugh Neff, arrived. Canadian Rangers assisted Sass while Race Judge Scott Smith drove his team to Braeburn. Sass has been released from the hospital and both he and his dogs are doing well now.

“The Yukon Quest was founded on the premise that a dog driver and his team should be a self-sufficient unit; capable of challenging varied terrain and severe weather conditions. The race is a living memorial to those turn-of-the-century miners, trappers, and mail carriers who opened up the country without the benefit of snowmobiles, airplanes, or roads.” ~ a Yukon Quest statement of philosophy

More about Marti Steury and the Yukon Quest:
Watch: Marti Steury on the Yukon Quest in 4 minutes:
Read: The Modern Sled Dog

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