Yukon Quest: The 1000-mile dog sled race through the Yukon and Alaska
by John Firth
Published by Lost Moose Publishing
1998, 278 pages
Buy it online
Have you ever wanted an adventure so big it made your heart hurt just to think about it? Something so large and different and adventurous it was unlike anything you'd ever thought of before? Something like the Yukon Quest, the 1000 mile dogsled race that runs annually between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Ten to 14 days on the frozen tundra behind a team of four-legged athletes, hoping against hope that the next time you cross over an iced-up river won't be your last.
The race in question is the Yukon Quest, run annually in early February. For most of us, this particular adventure is of the armchair variety. John Firth's seminal work on the subject is named for the race: Yukon Quest: The 1000-mile dog sled race through the Yukon and Alaska and is the perfect fodder for the dedicated armchair adventurer.
Originally published in 1990 as Yukon Challenge, Yukon Quest is newly updated and edited. As well, some pictures have been added and the maps altered to reflect changes that have been made to the race's course in the intervening years.
A lot, Firth writes, has changed since the book's first edition:
In 1990, when this book was first published, the Quest was little more than a local race that happened to cross an international boundary. Now, in 1998, it has major sponsors from around the globe who find its image can be easily marketed. It has an appeal that can lure the powerful down from their ivory towers to mingle with and idolize the lowly musher.
Of course, there are many things that haven't changed: that can not change in this race that Firth calls, "the world's last great adventure."
Here, on the shores of Lake LaBerge, we see with Firth the poetic and awful landscape that the race rides over:
The sun's light gradually creeps down the hills on the west side and touches upon the rocky merge of the lake (where Robert Service chose to cremate Sam McGee in one of his most famous poems) and on Richthofen Island, where a group of cabins used to provide service and shelter for the riverboats that plied the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Nome. Some of those riverboats, having been caught in the sudden windstorms that the lake is notorious for, now lie wrecked on the shore.
Poetry, we find with Firth, doesn't take us far on a ride as grueling as this one. Especially so close to the end of the trail:
But the history and the poetic setting aren't enough to give the tired driver more than a momentary thrill. The bruises and aches of abused muscles can no longer be overpowered by a rush of adrenaline. Once the emotional race is over, there is nothing left except to complete the physical part. Time starts to feel like an anchor. The hours spent alone on the lake ice are the longest ones the driver will ever endure. It's only 40 miles to the finish line, but the dogs are moving unbearably slowly. At times it seems like they're not moving at all. Every second becomes a minute; every minute, an hour.
Yukon Quest is an adventure-geek's handbook. The photographs are illustrative, but not the focal point. Firth's story is the race itself and all that surrounds it as you journey with him through every frozen mile.
As well, Yukon Quest is a guidebook to the race. Included in this edition are such interesting details as the complete rules to the race. (Among other things, competitors may not enter if they have ever been convicted of animal abuse or neglect.) Also included are the official race results from 1984 to 1997 along with all of the major awards given for the race. The Yukon Quest Musher Placement charts and the completion statistics are pure gold for those who love stats and all that go with them. Here we can see at a glance that, for instance, 1997 was a pretty rough year with only 17 of the 28 starters completing the race. And that 1988 was the biggest ever field to go out, but only 30 completed. And if, before you saw that, you didn't think it was a tough challenge, you'd know it now without ever reading another word of the book. It's not a race for sissies.
An excellent index finishes the book out, and this isn't as much of an aside as it might seem. Here is where you can easily find reference to specific mushers, sponsors and places.
Firth has, once again, delivered a book that serves on several levels. Those thinking about attending -- even in an academic way -- will get all the details they could ask for and a few more besides. Those with an interest in or a passion for one of the last earthly frontiers will find lots here to please them. And those looking for adventure will find it: from the comfort of their favorite chair.
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.