Howdy new Leaf Out Nature Guides blog readers! For the third year in a row, Shannon and I traveled the 155 miles along the entire length of the Steese Highway to volunteer in Circle, Alaska for the 1000-Mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race! Every year the Yukon Quest takes place in early February, between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The race start and finish lines alternate each year, and this year was a Fairbanks start for the 1000-mile (YQ1000) mushing competition. Running in tandem with the 1000-mile race, there is also a shorter, 300-mile version of the Yukon Quest (YQ300) which many use as a training ground for teams considering the 1000-mile races in the future. Both races began on the same day in Fairbanks, on Saturday February 1st, with the 15 teams competing in the YQ1000 departing from 11 AM to noon, and the 18 teams competing in the YQ300 from 3-5 PM. The closely staggered departures would mean that all 33 teams would be arriving largely en masse into the “Circle City” checkpoint where we would be based. The checkpoint is 216 miles into the race, so teams would be spread out a little, but we knew from our experience in 2018 (the previous Fairbanks start year) that it would be ‘hot and heavy’ so to speak from late Sunday night through to Tuesday morning. Its always a fairly cold event, though this year we had a nice warm up: from -35F on Sunday while we were setting up the checkpoint, to a balmy -10F on Wednesday. We bring the warmest of all our warm clothing- arctic bibs, bunny boots, big fluffy parkas, fur hats, huge mittens, and as many wool layers as we can fit on!
Circle (referred to by its original name, Circle City, for the Yukon Quest) is a small village of 104 mostly Alaska Native residents situated at the very end of the Steese Highway and right on the banks of the mighty Yukon River. In years when the Quest begins in Fairbanks, it thus serves as the entry point for all of the YQ1000 racers onto the Yukon River. For the YQ300 competitors it marks the turnaround point in their race, which finishes back in Central, Alaska—the previous checkpoint through which all racers have already passed. This means that our checkpoint served every team for both the YQ1000 AND YQ300 Yukon Quest, shepherding the 1000-milers towards the Yukon River and the 300-milers back the way they just came for their race finish in Central. Most mushers elected to stay at least 4 hours, while the most weary remained for almost 10 hours. For the YQ300 racers it was the mental hurdle of knowing they had to return to the frigid and ever-winding Birch Creek that kept them lingering in Circle. For those carrying on to Whitehorse in the YQ1000 race, the next checkpoint would be a LONG 160 miles to Eagle, Alaska, navigating along the always unpredictable Yukon River for the entire stretch. There would be a temporary, warm reprieve at a “Hospitality Stop” at Slaven’s Roadhouse (really just an old log cabin with a wood stove, several smiling volunteers, and not much else!), but another real rest would not come until Eagle.
For our volunteer duties at the Circle City checkpoint, Shannon and I spend almost the entire time checking teams in and out under the official Yukon Quest banner, ensuring that every team had their mandatory equipment on board their dog sled (sleeping bag, axe, snowshoes, cooker, fuel, vet book, Spot Tracker device, dog booties), and helping to park all of the dog teams in the crowded dog lot. You would think that parking a dog team would be pretty easy, but the space we have to work with is just a little too small, especially on years when we have the YQ300 coming through too. Depending on where the numerous broken down local trucks are parked any given year, we try to create 8 parking lanes. This year it was an even tighter squeeze with a couple trailers buried in the snow in the parking lot too. The teams have to make a wide loop and then a sharp turn into their specific lane, and with every additional dog team the loop gets tighter and tighter. This is where we come in—dogs will follow their lead dogs in more or less a straight line and thus don’t make wide turns very gracefully, so to get the whole team looped around and straight again you need extra hands pulling on the gang line to keep the team going as wide as possible. It gets really exciting when you are running along pulling the team wide and you hit a soft spot in the snow and suddenly…whoomph, you are down and the dogs continue on without you! That is one reason among many to have numerous folks helping to park a team! Once the lot is full it becomes more tricky to park any additional teams that come in. In Circle, we have a few extra spots designated, but multiple times during the busiest 24 hours every spot we had was full, and we’d have another team (or 2!) coming in shortly. This is where things get really tricky as everyone has opinions about where to put folks, but one of the most important rules of the race is equal treatment of all mushers. This is important with parking because if you give one team a quiet, secluded spot, but another team is parked in a spot where people are walking past all the time, the first team might have an advantage getting better rest, with less disruption and distraction. We also have to take into account how long a team has been there and how soon we think they might leave, so no one winds up blocked in. It can be a bit crazy, especially when it’s 3 AM, everyone is very short on sleep, and there are teams coming in neck-and-neck! The checkpoint utilizes the Circle Fire Hall as a warm space for the mushers to eat and rest, as well as all of their dog team handlers and Yukon Quest staff to stage while they await teams coming and going. It gets quite crowded inside the fire hall at busy times, with a nonstop flurry of weary mushers, handlers, Quest officials and vets, and of course us volunteers shuffling in and out, warming up, and keeping ourselves fed. Our Circle City checkpoint manager, Sam, kept everything running seamlessly, aided by the huge staff of volunteers she recruited this year—some returners like us and a great collection of new volunteers as well.
It is always an exhausting several days of volunteering, but we all love the camaraderie of the relatively small Yukon Quest racing community, and there is something about the energy of all of those amazing canine athletes that keeps us coming back each year. Circle, being right on the Yukon River and far from the distractions of Fairbanks (we don’t have any cell service while out there!), provides a novel change from our regular lives back in town. Although to be honest, both Shannon and I realized that we are enjoying our time providing snowshoe tours and luminary dinners to visitors through Leaf Out that we actually were a little uncertain about committing several days to the Yukon Quest this year. We are certainly glad we did, but as our business continues to grow, we may have to make tough choices about how to spread our time around in the future. What a wonderful problem to face at this stage in our lives!
Hi! I'm Shannon, the owner and operator of Leaf Out Nature Guides in Fairbanks, Alaska. Trained in biology and ethnobotany, I work, live, and play in the forests and tundras of Alaska. At Leaf Out we provide snowshoe tours and nature hikes in the Fairbanks area for adventurers of all ages and ability levels!