While the winner of the 2013 Yukon Quest is resting in Fairbanks, waiting with the subsequent finishers for the ceremonial Finish and Awards Banquet on Sunday, there are still several teams on the trail, making their way along the same paths, over the same rugged summits, and along the same winding trails. The primary glory rightly goes to the front-runners, those intrepid mushers who set a blistering pace and kept race-watchers repeatedly refreshing their tracker maps and asking “how long can they keep this up?”
As it turned out, they kept it up all the way, setting a new race record* and adding some great "tales of the trail" to the lore of this legendary race. Anyone who followed the race will long remember the winner, Allen Moore of SP Kennels, standing in the finish chute and casually asking, with his ever-charming smile, “So where’s everybody at?”
There was four-time champion Lance Mackey’s startling dropping of four dogs at the second checkpoint, and his subsequent scratching from the race. There was the surprising change of route, deleting the often-treacherous American Summit. There was the totally dauntless Brent Sass slowly but determinedly marching up Eagle Summit ahead of Jake Berkowitz’s team, and then Jake and Brent standing together on the finish podium, lofting their beers at one another. And then there was Susie Rogan’s tracker, veering wildly off-course and showing a steady trek away from the trail, and then slowly turning around, until finally she mushed under the finish banner as green-hued northern lights danced overhead.
After the finish formalities, the interviews and the photographs, her partner Hans Gatt, a four-time Yukon Quest Champion, motioned her into the sled, told the handlers to step back and “let the dogs go,” and he drove their team out of the chute and down the river to their dogtruck.
This year’s race has been a real nail-biter at times, surprising, and humorous, and suspenseful at others, as only this singular event can be. But it’s not over yet. Far from it.
The mushers who travel in the middle and the back of the pack don’t garner the same world-class media attention as the first few finishers, but many of them don’t mind that, because they have different aspirations, different goals. Simply finishing with a happy and healthy dog team is a major accomplishment, and something many of these men and women will never do again. Taking a dog team 1,000 miles is expensive, in multiple and sometimes unexpected ways.
Successfully finishing the Yukon Quest is a bucket list achievement for some, while for others it’s simply a chance to travel through some of the most spectacular country on earth with some of their best friends, both canine and human. The fierce rivalries at the front of the race are rarely seen in the rest of the event, as mushers and their teams settle into the serious work of moving on down the trail.
*The 2013 Yukon Quest trail was shortened by the detour around American Summit, which plays into the total race time.
Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. This post originally appeared on her website, Northern Light Media. It has been republished with permission.