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As second fiddle to the better known Iditarod, Yukon Quest sled dog race matures

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

When Nenana musher Bill Cotter won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race back in 1987, he didn't carry a stove in his sled to melt water for dog food. Instead, he just built a fire whenever he needed to mix up some food.

''I'd just go into the woods and cut down some trees,'' said Cotter.

When Sonny Lindner won the inaugural Quest three years earlier in 1984, he started and finished the race with only nine dogs.

These days, Quest mushers wouldn't consider doing either one of those things.

Since it began in 1984, the 1,000-mile mushing marathon from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, has evolved from a survival-of-the-fittest camping trip to a high-tech, competitive dog race rivaling the more-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.

''We're not stopping together making big campfires like we used to,'' said Quest veteran Dave Dalton, who first ran the race in 1988 and will be embarking on his 11th Quest when the race begins Saturday in Fairbanks at 11 a.m.

''Now you're on a schedule,'' Dalton said. ''You've already figured out how many stops you're going to make before the race even starts.''

Or as 1995 champ Frank Turner, the only musher who has started all 18 Quests, put it, ''Now you just about have to pee off the back of the sled.''

The trail is faster. Sleds are lighter. Headlamps are brighter. Stoves are hotter. Clothes are warmer. Booties are more durable. Dog food is better. Mushers are smarter.

''In the 1980s we were all still figuring out the race, like the old days of the Iditarod,'' said 1998 champion Bruce Lee, who first ran the race in 1986. ''Now people understand the trail. Where do you find overflow water to help simplify your chores so you don't have to melt snow? Where are the best places to stop?''

Healy musher Dave Sawatzky, considered one of the contenders in this year's race, first ran the Quest in 1987. One of the biggest changes Sawatzky has seen is a better trail, thanks in large part to the Canadian Rangers, who have been serving as trail breakers for more than a decade and have made several improvements to the trail.

Scroggie Creek Road, a 70-mile road that used to be plowed down to gravel so gold miners could get fuel into their camps before breakup, is no longer plowed.

The trail has been rerouted around Frank Creek, a notoriously nasty section of trail between Carmacks and Whitehorse that mushers referred to as ''the pinball machine'' because they spent much of the time bouncing off trees.

While the trail has improved, advances in equipment and food, such as dehydrated meat, have probably had the biggest impact on the race.

The Quest credo followed by mushers in the early years of the Quest was a pound of dog food per mile of trail. Rules required mushers to carry 25 pounds of food per dog on the 280-mile section of trail from Dawson City to Carmacks. As a result, most sleds were bulging at the seams, and sometimes overflowing with food and gear.

''I remember people leaving Dawson and they couldn't get their coolers in their sled,'' said Lee. ''They'd strap them to the top. We looked like old-time prospectors leaving Dawson with things tied everywhere.''

Now, with dehydrated meat that weighs a third of what normal meat does, mushers no longer must carry such big loads.

Unlike the Iditarod, which has three times the number of checkpoints the Quest does, the distances between checkpoints in the Quest is so great that mushers must carry two to three days of food. Prior to dehydrated meat, that usually meant wrestling with a sled load of between 200 and 300 pounds on the longest sections of trail. It wasn't uncommon to see where mushers had jettisoned dog food along the trail.

Not only have there been improvements in the trail and dog food, equipment has come a long way since the Quest started 18 years ago.

Now mushers use specially made alcohol stoves. All they do is pour some alcohol in and light it with a match. They have boiling water a half hour later.

''You can melt snow and ice so much quicker,'' Lee said. ''That means mushers get more rest.''

Polar fleece booties have been replaced by Cordura booties that are lighter, more durable and more compact.

''We used to have to stop every 35 or 40 miles and change booties,'' Lee said. ''Now you put on a set of boots and know no matter how far you're going the dogs the feet are protected.''

Mushers no longer have to stop and change booties each time they go through overflow because the Cordura booties don't freeze like the polar fleece booties did.

The clothing mushers wear has also improved. In the early days of the Quest, RefrigiWear was considered state of the art. Now, mushers wear high-tech snowsuits made of breathable materials like Gore-Tex and wool has been replaced with polar fleece, polypropylene and Capilene.

''You're not constantly worried about wet clothing (from sweat) and having to dry out all your stuff at every checkpoint,'' said Dalton, who wears a snowsuit made by Cabela's.

Sleds have gotten smaller and lighter, too. In the first few years of the Quest, 8-foot sleds were the norm because mushers needed the room for dog food. Today, most mushers run 5- and 6-foot sleds, many of which are made of aluminum and plastic instead of wood.

Rule changes in the Quest have also helped dogs and mushers since the Quest began in 1984.

For the first several years of the race, mushers could start with no more than 12 dogs and drop only three. Many mushers ended up scratching because they ran out of dogs.

Now mushers are allowed to start with 14 dogs and they can drop as many as eight. If a dog is sick or hurt, they can afford to drop it without jeopardizing their chances of finishing the race.

Race officials have also added three spots where mushers can drop sick, injured or tired dogs. Mushers no longer have to carry a dog for 100 or 200 miles before they can drop it.

Race strategy has also evolved over the years, resulting in a faster, more competitive race. Rather than adhere to the traditional way of running the race and stopping at the usual spots, mushers have experimented with how to run different sections of the race.

When he won in 1998, for example, Lee made only two stops on the 160-mile run from Eagle to Circle rather than the traditional three that mushers had always taken. He covered the distance in three runs instead of four.

''Now they run it like that all the time,'' Lee said.

Mushers also run their teams longer before resting them. It's not uncommon for teams to travel eight or 10 hours at a time before a musher stops to rest them.

''Back in those days we ran four hours on and four hours off,'' said Jon Gleason, who ran the race in 1985, 1987 and 1988. ''Once in a while you'd throw a five- or six-hour run in there, but nobody ever did an eight- or 10-hour run.''

Another noticeable difference in the race the last several years has been the lack of cold weather.

For the first 10 years of the race, cold weather was the norm. It was almost a guarantee that when the Quest started, the mercury would plunge. Sawaztky recalled one of his first Quests when the temperature never got warmer than 39 degrees below zero from Dawson to Whitehorse. In 1992, the temperature hovered between 40 and 50 below almost the entire race.

''We used to get some good stretches of cold weather,'' agreed Dalton. ''It hasn't been cold for quite a while.''

Despite, all the improvements and advancements in the trail, equipment and food, some things will never change about the Quest.

''What the Quest still has going for it that the Iditarod doesn't is that you still have that topography to deal with,'' Lee said, referring to the four mountains over 3,000 feet that mushers must climb during the race. ''You're running over all those hills. You're running over jumbled ice and windblown trail on the Yukon River.''

''You can do whatever you want to do in the evolution of equipment but you still have to run that trail,'' Lee said. ''It's still the Quest.''

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