Yukon Quest: Hold on to your fingers!

The Yukon Quest is certainly one of the biggest local highlights of the year.

The Yukon Quest is a dogsled race between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. On even years, the race starts from Fairbanks. On odd years, it starts from Whitehorse.

Looks like 2019 was my lucky year!

A mythical race

A few days before the race, my roommate asked me if I planned on attending the Yukon Quest celebrations in town. Her face was beaming with excitement. The whole city would gather to cheer the 30 mushers at the starting line.

To be honest, I didn’t plan on going initially. While I’m a big fan of Balto, the famous sleddog (whose movie I watched countless times as a kid), I had other plans for that day: I had just booked a woodworking workshop and that seemed to be a better use of my time.

You should definitely watch this Balto movie.

My roommate then gasped and did her best to convey how exceptional the Yukon Quest was. There would be tons of adorable sled dogs! The dogs are just so excited they can’t wait to get on the trail! And the race is 1,000-mile long!

That’s how she managed to get my attention.

Did she really say 1,000 miles?

Get your measuring tape

1000 miles. 1 600 km.

Here is what the Yukon Quest looks like on a map (the road is more direct when you drive a car, obviously):

1,000 miles is also the distance between Toulouse, France, and Berlin, Germany.

At any rate, the Yukon Quest is a long race. I could now see why it was such a big deal. My mind couldn’t begin to comprehend the challenges of this adventure (read: suicide mission).

So, in case you still don’t get it, we’re talking about:

  • Racing 1,000 miles or 1,600 km
  • In the dead of winter
  • In one of the world’s most hostile natural environments
  • With rudimentary means of transportation
  • Pulled by a dozen sled dogs.

What could go wrong?

I started having mild regrets for booking that woodworking class. My roommate then said not to worry since I would probably catch the Yukon Quest 300 (a shorter, 480-km race), the second race that was scheduled to leave Whitehorse that afternoon.

Feeling all the chills

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019. The sun is shining, but it’s -40°.

Would you go on a 1,600-km race lasting 10 days in -40° weather? That’s what 30 mushers were about to do (plus the 13 mushers heading out on the shorter Yukon Quest 300 race).


Like I said earlier, I was’t able to attend the beginning of the big race. I won’t get to see it until February 2021, since the Yukon Quest will start from Fairbanks, Alaska next year. Suffice to say, I learned my lesson!

I got to the starting line at 3pm sharp, just in time for the first mushers to leave (they depart one after the other at 3-minute intervals). Fun fact: two 18-year-old (French-speaking!) twins were registered for this year’s Yukon Quest 300 race!

I apologize for the poor quality of the photos. I only had my phone with me, which kept dying in my hands each time I took it out to take a picture. That’s just what the cold does to phone batteries over here!

The dogs are so excited that several volunteers are needed to hold them in place.
On top of that, you need two people on the brakes!

There’s worse: The Yukon Arctic Ultra Race

That same weekend, there was also the start of the Yukon Arctic Race, an even more moschistic winter race.

The Yukon Arctic Ultra Race roughly follows the path of the Yukon Quest. Athletes can sign up for different race events:

  • 26 miles (full marathon, 42 km)
  • 100 miles (160 km)
  • 300 miles (480 km)
  • 430 miles (600 km) – the distance between Whitehorse and Dawson City.

As we all know, running a classic marathon isn’t hard enough. Why not multiply that distance by 15 and race in North America’s worst possible weather conditions?!

I don’t know, guys, I really don’t know.

I will say, though, that athletes can choose to complete the race by foot, ski or winter bike. That probably makes it a little more bearable (but only ever so slightly).

Losing minds and toes

The Yukon Arctic Ultra Race is undoubtedly a perilous one. Last year, an Italian athlete had his 2 feet and right hand amputated due to severe frostbite.

Another contestant lost 3 fingers (which he kindly donated to a bar in Dawson City known for its Sourtoe Cocktail, a shooter made with an unusual ingredient: an old, mummified human toe. Drinkers are dared to touch the toe with their lips.)

If you think I’m making this up, go read this article:

In the 1920s, the rum-running Linken brothers — Louie and Otto — got caught in a blizzard. Louie put his foot through a patch of ice and soaked his foot. When the brothers got back to their cabin, Louie’s right foot was frozen solid.

To prevent gangrene, Otto used his axe to chop off Louie’s toe. He placed the toe in a jar of alcohol to commemorate the event. In 1973, legend has it that Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar (and the toe) in a remote cabin.

He came up with the idea of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club — an exclusive club, with one membership requirement. In order to gain admittance to the club, potential members must drink the legendary sourtoe coctail. There’s just one rule: “You can drink it fast. You can drink it slow. But your lips must touch that gnarly toe.”

Bon appétit!

A popular race nonetheless

Upon reading this article, you may be wondering whether the cold and long, dark winter nights can mentally affect Yukoners. I can assure you that Finns live in a similar climate, yet are not nearly as silly as people are over here.

(I will say, however, that Yukoners do demonstrate sisu, a typically Finnish and unwavering form of persistence in the face of adversity.)

Anyway, to return to the Arctic Ultra Race, you might be interested to know that 24 athletes registered for the marathon, 12 for 100-mile race, 6 for the 300-mile race, and 41 (!!!) for the whole 430-mile race.

I wish I could tell you this absurd enthusiasm for endurance races was limited to the Yukon territory. It’s not the case. It looks like the epidemic is spreading all over the world. Most athletes are indeed from Whitehorse, but I noticed 21 were from England, 5 from the US, 4 from Spain and Ireland, 2 from Italy and Australia, and 1 from Romania, Mexico, Brunei and even Indonesia, among others. (None came from Finland, in case you were wondering.)

In any case, Yukon is weird.

What about the woodworking class?

The woodworking workshop I attended was amazing! It was a two-day women-only class where we learned to make our own cutting boards.

The workshop took place at Yukonstruct, a multifunctional space where members can use all sorts of equipment to make creative projects come to life. I used the word “creative”, but Yukonstruct offers so much more. There’s a woodworking shop, welding equipment, sewing machines, a 3D printer, a laser design room…

The workshop taught me to cut, plane, sand and finish wood, and I’m super proud of my brand new charcuterie board!