The Yukon Quest: For Real Mushers Only Most Americans have heard of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. With its big corporate sponsorships and huge field of entrants, it's the Indy 500 of mushing. But there's another 1,000-mile adventure in Alaska: The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, through Alaska and Canada's Yukon.
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The Yukon Quest: For Real Mushers Only

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The Yukon Quest: For Real Mushers Only

The Yukon Quest: For Real Mushers Only

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Dog-mushers and their packs are wrapping up a 1,000-mile race through Alaska today. It's not the Iditarod, that starts next weekend. This is Alaska's other dogsled event. The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race doesn't have the Iditarod's money, media attention or crowded field, and the people involved wouldn't have it any other way. From member station KUAC in Fairbanks, Libby Casey reports.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

LIBBY CASEY: Alaskan Aaron Burmeister has run the Iditarod nine times, but this year he spent February alone with his 14-dog team on the Yukon Quest Trail.

Mr. AARON BURMEISTER (Competitor, Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race): Somebody that wants a mushing adventure and seeing the country and everything else is going to go to the Quest. Somebody that wants to get their name in the biggest event in the world type is going to go to Iditarod. So Quest attracts a really tough, hardy crowd. Iditarod attracts egos. I guess that's one way of putting it, to be blunt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: Burmeister was this year's top rookie, finishing in Fairbanks Wednesday afternoon in fifth place, a full day later than champion Lance Mackey, but for many of the mushers, the goal is simply to finish. A quarter of this year's 28 entrants quit without finishing the race, and six are still out on the trail.

This year's Yukon Quest started on February 10 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

(Soundbite of applause)

CASEY: It scales mountains, winds over rivers and crosses from Canada to Alaska, but the border is noted only by a swath cut in the trees. The race has few checkpoints, which means long nights alone with your dogs and your thoughts.

When the mushers do come in from the cold, they stop at hospitality cabins like the restored Plavins(ph) Roadhouse in eastern Alaska. The Gold-Rush-era lodge shakes off its winter slumber as volunteer Pat Sanders(ph) cooks a midnight breakfast of bacon and eggs by the glow of gas lanterns.

(Soundbite of bacon frying)

Ms. PAT SANDERS (Volunteer Cook, Plavins Roadhouse): This is truly the racer and the dogs against whatever nature throws at them. They come in, and they're cold and tired and hungry, but they always take care of their dogs first, always, always.

CASEY: Despite the cold, the dark and the isolation, the dogs love to run. When one is left behind halfway through the race to rest, he can barely stand it.

(Soundbite of dog howling)

CASEY: The quest follows abandoned Gold-Rush trails through the bush, and you're not likely to see anybody, but a lynx or moose. So when a musher meets a fellow team, it's usually a welcome sight. Last year's top Iditarod rookie, Mike Jayne, says he's surprised by the camaraderie on this race.

Mr. MIKE JAYNE (Competitor, Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race): Everyone's a lot friendlier. You go by, and everyone's camped, and the campfire's going, and other races it's not like that, you know. So it doesn't even really feel like a race. It's just like a trip.

CASEY: It's a trip through the darkest and coldest part of the winter. This year, temperature got down to minus 60. Mushers must be totally self-reliant. If a sled breaks or a dog gets hurt, you have to take care of it on your own. There's no one to call for help. That's what draws Alaskan Kelley Griffin.

Ms. KELLEY GRIFFIN (Competitor, Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race): There's nothing like it, I don't think, in the whole world. Gorgeous. And then when you see pictures of it, they'll have this panoramic view, and then there's a tiny little speck in the middle of the river, and that's a dog team. And that's how you feel out there. You just go oh my gosh, this country's so huge, and I'm just a microscopic speck in the middle of it.

CASEY: In the middle of it with 14 dogs to keep her company. For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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