By Shannon Proudfoot in Dawson City and Whitehorse, Yukon
By Shannon Proudfoot in Dawson City and Whitehorse, Yukon
Racing dogs over icy mountains in -70°C is just part of what makes the Yukon Quest the most gruelling race on Earth.

The landscape glows orange and blue in the morning light, every exhaled breath a smoke signal lifting into the sky. Trucks park in a semicircle on the banks of the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, the bed of each covered by a stout box with its sides punctured by portholes the size of dinner plates. A wet, leathery nose and pair of bright eyes dart around behind each opening.

Twenty-three mushers, all of them puffed up to double their size by insulated layers, haul their dog sleds off the tops of their trucks and stuff their sled bags with the supplies they hope will carry them safely through the 1,000 wild and lonely miles of the Yukon Quest. They pop open the doors of the dog boxes and hoist their wriggling racing partners to the ground, then loop harnesses over their heads and shoulders and slip protective booties on their paws. Two by two, the dogs — up to 14 per team — are clipped into position along the gang lines stretching from the front of each sled, the barking, yelping, keening frenzy sounding like a choir of microphoned seagulls.

Every three minutes, another musher pulls into the start chute — eight women and 15 men in all, ranging in age (23 to 62) and experience. Among them is 44-year-old Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, about to embark on his 20th 1,000-mile (1,600-km) journey with several near-misses behind him but no victories. Last year, a tragedy on the trail broke his heart; this time, he’s sure, it is finally his year to win. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Brian Wilmshurst, a Quest rookie from Dawson City, Yukon, arrives at the start line churning with nerves — after a history of “gong show” starts in shorter races, he’s anxious to look like a pro.

Hundreds of cheering spectators add to the lunatic chorus of the dogs, who have transformed into fur-covered lightning bolts leaping in their harnesses. Each musher takes one last walk down the gang line, scratching vibrating ears and shouting encouragement to the dogs. A whoop goes up from the crowd as each countdown finishes, and one by one, the mushers yank out the snow hooks anchoring their sleds, finally allowing their teams to lurch out of the start chute and down the frozen river toward the edge of town. Eventually, the crowds thin and recede, leaving each musher alone on the silent trail — nothing but a feral landscape, the rhythmic panting of a dog team on the move and sled runners whispering to the snow.

Known as the world’s toughest sled dog race — or, to some, the toughest race on earth — the Yukon Quest is the wild, free-spirited younger brother to the more famous Iditarod. The race alternates direction each year between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, and the trail reaches a century into the past, following a patchwork of transportation and mail routes used during the Klondike Gold Rush. The Quest was born in a bar three decades ago, dreamed up as a journey that would test the limits of man and dog while paying homage to the history of the North and the spirit of adventure that helped shape the soul of the permafrost. The Iditarod had been established for a decade by the time the first Quest mushers set out in 1984. The Quest takes place a month earlier, in darker and colder conditions (temperatures between -30°C and -40°C are the norm; no one really starts complaining until -50°C, and the most brutal spots can hit -70°C with wind chill), and crosses four summits that spike at least 1,000 metres into the sky, while Iditarod mushers navigate only one mountain range. The Iditarod has 23 checkpoints where mushers can pick up supplies, rest and defrost; the Quest has just nine.

“I’ve had so many crazy experiences on the trail that it’s sort of taken over my soul.”

Mushers set out with a sleeping bag, axe, snowshoes, food cooker, a bale of hay for dog beds and enough food to carry their team to the next checkpoint. The dogs burn up to 12,000 calories a day and it’s not unusual for mushers to lose 20 pounds. They’re lucky to sleep an hour or two a night as they cross the jagged, frozen roof of the continent with only the Northern Lights, their dogs and the ghosts of the gold-seekers for company. “I’ve had so many crazy experiences on the trail that it’s sort of taken over my soul,” says Neff. “A lot of us are just wannabes born a hundred years too late.”

Four of the mushers leaving Fairbanks on Feb. 4 will not cross the finish line in Whitehorse, 1,600 km and almost two weeks away (on average, one-third of the competitors don’t complete the race). The winner will earn almost $29,000 of the $150,000 purse, but no one will recoup the money they spend to compete. “It’s more than just a race, it’s a lifestyle,” says Sebastian Schnuelle, a Quest veteran and the 2009 champion. “It’s almost like an addiction.”

Every inch of the course, which can move from snow to ice or rock with little warning, jolts and wears on the mushers and their teams.

Out on the trail, the mushers look like spirits gliding silently out of the past, but every angle of the route jolts the lightweight, flexible frames of their sleds — a constant reminder that Mother Nature is in charge. The runners slide greasily across the snow rather than carving into it, the feeling less like skiing than floundering across a rink with the skate guards still on your blades. The mushers speed things along using ski poles or by “pedalling” their feet as though they’re on a skateboard, and they spend long miles running behind the sled and pushing it up hills to help their dogs. The teams camp along the trail, running an average of six hours on and six off around the clock, but much of the downtime is taken up arranging straw beds for the dogs and feeding and watering them. Long-distance dog teams are dominated by a relatively new canine invention called Alaskan Huskies or simply “sled dogs,” a Frankensteinian mash-up of breeds defined by function rather than form. They range in size from 35 to 60 pounds, with pointed ears, curled tails and grinning faces.

Wilmshurst spends the first few legs of the race fretting over his dogs and their eating habits like a first-time father. He grew up in Peterborough, Ont., and came to the Yukon on a road trip in 2004, conveniently running out of money and falling in love with the place at the same time. After he and his wife, Melissa Atkinson, settled in, he tried mushing a few times and then acquired a sled and a couple of dogs from a friend. A couple more dogs showed up, then 10 more, and now they live on a “dog ranch” just outside Dawson City, the halfway point of the Quest trail. “I never do things half-assed,” laughs Wilmshurst, a genial bear of a guy who likes to meander around Dawson wearing North Carolina Tar Heels shorts, a plaid jacket and a tie-dyed T-shirt any time the temperature rises above -10°C.

The Fairbanks-to-Whitehorse trail clobbers the mushers almost immediately with a pair of steep, 1,000-m peaks. Wilmshurst has heard the horror stories about the second, Eagle Summit, but he doesn’t expect much trouble from the first one, Rosebud. When he sees a few teams resting at the base, he presses on. He regrets it when he and his team are heaving for breath on the trail. They finally reach the summit, but mild temperatures and high winds have swept it clean, leaving nothing but angry rock to drag themselves across.

They start down the far side, but there’s little snow to slow their descent and the sled flips over. Wilmshurst manages to cling to it as the dogs tear along, but when they grind to a halt, he looks up and sees his parka lying on the mountain behind him. The only place to tie the dogs is a pathetic twig of a tree, so he hitches the team to it, hopes for a miracle and goes after his parka. Just as he reaches the sled, the tree snaps and the dogs careen down the slope. Wilmshurst lunges after them, falls and goes rolling down the hill, certain he’s about to lose his sled, dogs and gear all at once. When he skids to a stop, everything somehow lands in a big pile. “It all kind of worked out,” he says with a grin.

Everyone tells Wilmshurst to climb Eagle before dark, but he wants to rest and gambles on a nighttime crossing. He’s freaked out by the time he reaches the saddle between the two peaks, but as he gazes up at the hulking mass of Eagle, a glowing runway appears where his headlamp catches the hundreds of reflective wooden trail markers, pointing the way through the night. Once he finds his groove on the trail, he pulls out his iPod, dangles the earphones over his shoulders like miniature speakers and cues up his 15-hour Neil Young playlist. As the temperature drops, a halo of fog hovers over his team. Wilmshurst is in heaven.

Competitors don't really complain unless the on-course temperature dips below -50°C.

Eagle Summit is the stone-faced bogeyman of the Quest, known as the hurricane-powered snow globe that forced five teams to be rescued by helicopter in 2006. The mountain is often the worst of the trail for everyone, but it’s become a white whale on the tundra for Neff, stalling and swallowing up his teams again and again.

As a kid growing up in a Chicago suburb, Neff obsessed over the Alaska he saw in books and movies. He took a summer job at an Alaska fishing cannery in college before finally moving to the Great Land permanently in 1995. He was the Iditarod rookie of the year in 2004, but he’s since acquired the nickname ‘Huge Mess’ because of his tendency to fly through the early stages of a race and then flame out. Neff is a flamboyant personality with a keen sense of self-branding — he roared out of the 2012 Quest start chute brandishing an Alaska flag and wearing the red-and-white stovepipe hat of Dr. Seuss’s cat, his lead dogs in matching jackets. “I have a big advantage compared to most of the other mushers because I’m crazy,” he says with practised nonchalance. He delights in his own quotability, but he’s also clearly in love with the adventure of the trail. “I don’t necessarily want to be a famous winning musher,” he says. “I just want to be the guy who, year in and year out, races more than anyone else and gets to have a longer journey.” Still, there’s a raw edge in his voice when he talks about the near-misses of his past races, and he’s more intense than he would probably ever admit.

“It’s more than just a race, it’s a lifestyle. It’s almost like an addiction.”

Last year’s Quest brought Neff’s toughest loss of all. The race featured some of the harshest conditions ever seen, and only 13 of 25 mushers made it to the finish. Neff wasn’t one of them. He and his team spent half a day battling with Eagle while high winds hurled snow and ice crystals at them. They were on their third attempt up the steep face when Geronimo, a three-year-old sled dog with a dapper black-and-white spotted coat, collapsed. Neff frantically attempted CPR, but by the time race officials reached them, Geronimo had died of asphyxiation as a result of vomit in his lungs. Dog deaths are rare in the Quest — the animals go through a series of mandatory examinations and more than a dozen vets work on the trail — but when they happen, they’re devastating for mushers. Geronimo’s face now peers out from a tattoo on Neff’s right arm.

There’s clear weather this year on Eagle as Neff and his team make a slow climb up the mountain. He reaches the summit and looks down onto the jagged face that killed his dog — it’s a steep slope with very little snow cover, making for a swift and dangerous descent. He stands on the brake pad between the runners all the way down the hill so his sled doesn’t overrun his dogs, and when they reach the spot where Geronimo died, Neff stops his team. He pulls out a photo of the dog and tucks it into one of the tripods that permanently mark the trail over the mountain, then says a prayer. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have turned around and I would have my boy still with me,” he says. “That was the most horrible experience I’ve ever been through and something I live with every day.”

Alaskan Huskies, with their pointed ears, curled tails and grinning faces, dominate long-distance sled teams.

A few hours behind Neff is Mike Ellis, a Two Rivers, Alaska, musher running his fifth Quest with a rare team of Siberian Huskies. He and his wife, Sue, have a reputation for caring for their dogs with a gentleness usually reserved for small children, and this is a peak year for their team — with money tight, they’ve skipped smaller races to put everything into the Quest. “This has really become my life,” says Ellis, 41.

His team is below the treeline on their descent from Eagle when they hit a patch of wet ice, slippery as greased glass. Ellis grasps at the brush around him, trying to control his slide so he doesn’t jerk the dogs, but the sled kicks abruptly to one side. “If you let go, the dogs will be gone and they can be seriously injured or killed,” he says. “You just don’t do it. You hang onto the handlebar and go down with the ship.” He lurches over with the sled and his left shoulder slams into the ice. Pain bursts from the joint. When Ellis looks down, he can see his dislocated shoulder jutting out under his jacket.

Ignoring the searing pain, he pushes with his right arm and leans against the handlebar of his sled until his shoulder pops back into the socket. “I absolutely did not have an option,” he says later. “I couldn’t have done anything else but sit there and scream.” Ellis rigs up a sling inside his coat and sets out on the excruciating 32 km to the next checkpoint.

“I have a big advantage compared to most of the other mushers because I’m crazy.”

Mushers are disqualified if they accept outside help at any point in the race (except when they’re in Dawson City, the halfway point), but they can assist each other. Every year, at least one person gets out safely only with the aid of his competitors. Last year, Schnuelle helped rescue Hans Gatt, the defending champion, and his team after they fell into waist-deep water that had seeped over shattered ice. At -55°C, there was no way to dry out Gatt’s clothing, so Schnuelle fashioned makeshift boots for him out of canvas bags and dog coats. Gatt scratched from the race with second-degree frostbite and Schnuelle crossed the finish line in second place, 33 minutes behind the winner.

Ellis drags himself into the next checkpoint in the late afternoon on Sunday. People offer to help feed and water his dogs, but he declines, hoping he can continue in the race. He pops some ibuprofen to dull the worst of the pain and manages to sleep for an hour, but when he wakes, he’s paralyzed with pain. He finds Sue and they go to the race judge. Ellis scratched once before, in 2009, after a series of freak injuries to his dogs. That time, he knew it was the right thing for his team; this decision is so much harder. “It’s what they’re born to do,” he says. “There’s nothing in the world they’d rather do.” He stops, soft eyes above his wild beard filling with tears. “And really, there’s nothing I’d rather do.”

After hard kilometres alone on trail, mushers and their teams get a chance to rest and refuel at one of the course's nine checkpoints (the Iditarod has 23).

Dawson City was the ‘Paris of the North’ during the Klondike Gold Rush. It exploded almost overnight from a tiny village into a roiling party for 40,000 wannabe millionaires, then contracted just as quickly when everyone blew town for the next gold discovery. It’s now home to 1,300 residents, raised wooden sidewalks, flat-fronted buildings painted ice cream shades, and a handful of restaurants and bars named for the likes of Klondike Kate, Bombay Peggy and Diamond Tooth Gertie. It’s less a tarted-up tourist trap than a place that just decided to stay frozen in time, hugged up against the bluffs at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The town is the midway point on the trail, and the mushers and their dogs will spend a mandatory 36-hour rest here.

One of the front-runners coming into Dawson is Allen Moore, a 54-year-old musher whose drawling Arkansas accent, tidy moustache and flame-embroidered black hat suggest he might drive a stock car if he hadn’t taken to sled dogs. The exhaustion of the trail is settling on him like a heavy blanket. He’ll be pushing along with both ski poles and drop off to sleep — then wake up again, still ski-poling. And he’s seeing strange visitors he knows aren’t there. “I don’t know if it’s the full moon, but I haven’t come across a musher yet who hasn’t had it happen,” he says of the hallucinations.

The satellite trackers that follow the mushers’ progress are unreliable, so no one — including the mushers — knows who will be first to arrive in Dawson. Just after midnight on day five, a single headlamp dances into view in the inky darkness up the river valley from the town, and a small crowd gathers to wait under a curtain of Northern Lights. Long minutes go by, and then Moore and his team appear on the trail above the river and glide toward the crowd. He’s followed 20 minutes later by Lance Mackey, a mushing icon who has won the Quest and Iditarod four times each, including two years in which he pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of winning both. Neff reaches Dawson a full hour behind Mackey. All the teams arriving that night and over the next several days look the same: dogs wearing ice goatees and tongue-lolling grins, the mushers’ eyes crinkled into slits of exhaustion and their eyebrows (and the men’s moustaches and beards) frosted with ice.

Wilmshurst is in 16th place when he reaches Dawson, but the hometown musher draws as big a crowd as the first arrivals. After he and Atkinson have settled their dogs in the campsite where all the teams spend the layover, they head home and find a welcome gift in their driveway: a freezer packed with meat, and a note telling them to keep the whole thing. “I’ve never seen so many people excited that I made it halfway through a race,” Wilmshurst says.

“If you let go, the dogs will be gone and they can be seriously injured or killed. You just don’t do it. You hang onto the handlebar and go down with the ship.”

Ellis arrives in Dawson wearing a black sling, determined to work as a designated handler for his close friend Brent Sass’s dogs. Ellis’s heart aches as much as his shoulder. “I’m far from processing this,” he says quietly.

The layover passes quickly and the dog yard goes quiet with intense activity as the front-runners prepare to yank out their snow hooks and take on the second half of the trail. One by one, the teams head straight across the meringue whips of snow covering the frozen Yukon River, then turn sharply and run along the foot of the bluffs that surround Dawson. From here, they face 320 km of wild until the next checkpoint.

Neff leaves Dawson more than an hour behind Moore, bent on catching him. There’s an item missing from his sled: the axe, one of the mandatory pieces of equipment. He won’t notice the mistake until later.

Following the same trail as Klondike prospectors, Quest mushers can feel transported back a century and more to the time of the great gold rush.

The sky is darkening as Neff and his team near the top of the 1,200-m King Solomon’s Dome, the tallest summit on the trail, but a gently curving giant that makes for an easy climb. The mountain is named for the rich Biblical king because it was believed to be the source of the gleaming nuggets that sparked the Gold Rush. From the top of the dome, Neff can see 40 or 50 km in every direction: deep river valleys and snow-covered mountains with a buzz cut of trees marching up their sides.

He feels as though he’s being watched. The four-legged inhabitants of the woods hunker down in the harshest conditions, but with the milder weather — the temperature bobs between -10°C and -30°C for much of the race, tropical in Quest terms — he can see tracks running all around him. He knows a charging moose is as dangerous as a freight train. One of the rules of the race is that any game animal killed on the trail has to be salvaged for human use. In 1993, a moose charged a team and the musher walloped it between the eyes with the flat end of his axe, then had to stop and butcher the carcass before he could continue. Neff pulls out his iPod and a tiny speaker, cues up some B.B. King and sets the makeshift stereo on top of his sled bag. The music should scare off any marauding Bullwinkles, and it gives the musher and his dogs a little swagger. “When we’re out there, we’re almost in an alternate universe,” he says. “I feel like I’m actually from that time and revisiting where I used to be.”

He soon realizes his axe is missing, but he has to wait until the next checkpoint to alert the race marshal. The official slaps him with the standard 30-minute penalty, to be served at the last checkpoint before Whitehorse. There are a few snickers about the return of ‘Huge Mess,’ even though Neff has cut Moore’s lead to just a few minutes.

Wilmshurst hits his stride in the second half of the race — the solitude that can induce a strange craziness out on the trail suits him perfectly. But as he enters the final legs of the journey, the exhaustion that’s been chewing up the other mushers finally sinks in. He’s standing on his runners, Neil Young wailing away, and then suddenly he wakes up in a snowbank. He climbs back on his sled and chugs a couple of 5-hour Energy shots, but he falls asleep again and again, and his dogs are starting to get annoyed. Finally, Wilmshurst gives in and camps during the warmest afternoon hours that suck the life out of mushers and dogs.

Moore leads almost the entire second half of the race. He reaches Braeburn, the last checkpoint before Whitehorse, around 8 a.m. on Day 9, and Neff arrives just 12 minutes behind him. There is a mandatory eight-hour rest at this checkpoint and Moore flies out of there the second his window is up. Thanks to his penalty, Neff and his team can’t leave for 42 agonizing minutes.

Darkness falls, the miles and minutes tick by and Whitehorse transforms from a distant mirage into a tantalizing reality. Moore’s team is moving at a good clip and though he doesn’t think Neff can catch him, he keeps throwing glances over his shoulder through the night. Each time, he sees nothing but black.

“There’s nothing in the world the dogs would rather do. And really, there’s nothing I’d rather do.”

Behind him, Neff is barrelling along with his headlamp turned off. He’s about 50 km from Whitehorse when he passes a road and a woman shouts that Moore is only 15 minutes ahead. He stops to feed his team, eating up crucial time he hopes will pay off in energy and speed. Finally, Neff catches sight of Moore. Urging his team on, he creeps closer and closer. Neff is about 200 metres behind Moore and 30 km from Whitehorse when he realizes how much he’d hate it if another musher slithered up on him. “I thought it would be the gentlemanly thing to let him know I was behind him,” he says.

Moore looks over his shoulder again, but instead of comforting darkness, he sees Neff’s headlamp flicker to life right behind him. A former Arkansas State basketball player who puts in long hours of exercise as part of his musher training, Moore mutters a few colourful phrases, grabs his ski poles and starts spinning his arms like a Looney Tunes character. For a while, Neff stops gaining on him and even recedes a bit, but Moore realizes he will have to spend the next three hours doing this if he’s going to hold onto the lead.

Over and over, Neff yo-yos closer to Moore and then falls back. One of his dogs, Gringo, starts to have trouble keeping pace and Neff stops to put him in the sled bag — it’s a pause that costs seconds he doesn’t have and adds weight to the sled. But a dog team is only as fast as its slowest member, and with Gringo out of the mix, Neff’s team finally closes the gap. After 10 days battling the wilderness alone, the mushers are just half an hour from the finish line when Neff surges past Moore.

On his 20th 1000-mile race, Neff carries a reputation for sometimes spectacular flameouts along with the gear on his sled.

The lights of Whitehorse are drawing closer in the pre-dawn darkness, but Moore doesn’t give up. He stays close behind, knowing that at this point, the slightest error from Neff means the race is his. Less than two kilometres from the finish line, it happens. Neff’s team reaches a broad swath of wet ice on the trail and they balk, hauling to the right and onto the bank above the trail. He deflates like a balloon, certain this is where Moore blows by him and the race becomes another near-miss for ‘Huge Mess.’ Neff runs to the front of his team to pull them back on the trail, and when he looks up, Moore’s dogs are standing right next to his on the bank — they rejected the ice-covered trail, too. He yells something to Moore about both of them being crazy and then darts back onto the trail with his team, hoping this might buy him a 10-second advantage.

The last time the Yukon Quest ended with a sprint to the finish, in 2009, Neff lost the championship to Schnuelle by four minutes. He has 20,000 miles of long-distance mushing and frustration behind him when he starts to hear the cheering crowd huddled along the Yukon River, and the race announcer hollering that this one is coming down to a matter of seconds.

Neff never stops looking over his shoulder, even as his dogs trot wearily into the finish chute and the announcer booms, “Hugh Neff, ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the Yukon Quest!” The musher throws his arms in the air, then slumps over the handlebar of his sled. He stands up, chest heaving, his face drenched in sweat. But he only gets the briefest moment to soak in the victory before he has to haul his team out of the way. Moore rolls in 26 seconds behind him — the closest finish in the history of the Quest — with a weary grin on his face.

“When we’re out there, we’re almost in an alternate universe.”

Ellis is at the finish line to see them arrive. Late that night, Sass will reach Whitehorse in fifth place, thanks in no small part to the one-handed massages Ellis administered to sore canine muscles in Dawson. When Sass’s team pulls in, Ellis will sink down into the snow beside the wheel dogs who pull the heaviest load, rubbing their sore haunches while they gaze up at him as if they’ve found the love of their lives. But watching from the sidelines that morning is too much. “The finish line hit me like a load of bricks,” he says. “I wasn’t there with my dogs.” Ellis walks away from the giddy chaos in Whitehorse and just sits on the edge of the river for a few long moments.

Even the easygoing Wilmshurst will later admit that the last 20 km to Whitehorse stretched out as long as the rest of the trail put together. A big crowd waits for him to arrive just after midnight. A friend who owns a flower shop showers the dogs with fistfuls of rose petals as they cross the finish line, and another buddy shows up with his guitar and croons “Keep on Mushing in the Free World.” Atkinson fires up a little barbecue to cook steaks for the dogs and her favourite musher, and Wilmshurst’s feet are in such brutal shape that he yanks off his boots and pads around in his socks. The rookie finishes in 16th, happy he figured out the basics of a long-distance race. He’s already decided he’ll be back next year.

Neff doesn’t even try to catch up on sleep, embarking on a bar stool victory tour instead. He looks and sounds like a man who’s shaken off a hex. “I just knew this was my time,” he says. At the finish line, Neff worked his way down the gang line even before he’d caught his breath, scratching the nine furry heads — including Geronimo’s lookalike sister, Juanita — and thinking about the one who wasn’t there.

All the dog teams recover quickly from their long journey, bouncing on the snow and ready to run the day after they reach the finish line. It will be several more days before the mushers stop waking up every few hours in a bleary-eyed panic, thinking they need to get their teams back on the trail, over the next mountain pass or across another frozen river.

This story was originally published in 2012. The 2019 running of the Yukon Quest begins Feb. 2.

Photo Credits

Photography by Harry Kern and Ariel Body.