The newest book from Northern Light Media is a captivating journey traced each February by hardy mushers and their teams of lionhearted sled dogs, traveling, as the subtitle states, ‘1,000 miles across northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory.’ Over frozen rivers and lakes, across mountain ranges, through “valleys unpeopled and still,” as described by poet Robert Service over a century ago, the sled dog teams are on a quest….
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘quest’ as “a journey made in search of something,” or “a long and difficult effort to find or do something.” In the case of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race there are a lot of possibilities for what that “something” might be. A championship. The fulfillment of a dream. A testing of oneself, and one’s dogs. A trek through some of the most incredible wilderness to be found anywhere. A promise kept. A bucket list checkmarked. A march through history. An accomplishment which few mushers ever achieve. An achievement to be proud of.
The Yukon Quest Trail explains the history and the route of the Yukon Quest, with full-color photographs which give the reader a compelling look at what it’s like to launch out of the starting chute behind a team of lunging huskies, or to be feeding your tired but hungry team when it’s thirty degrees below zero, or to be all alone in a vast mountain valley with only the thin orange-and-black trail markers to show the way. Superlatives become superfluous, but Robert Service found just the right words in his ode to the north country, The Spell of the Yukon:
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ‘em good-by — but I can’t.
Every year a large percentage of the mushers who enter the Yukon Quest are those who have been down this trail before, and over the years, this incredible adventure wraps mushers and dogs together with a traveling road show made up of handlers, vets, volunteers, judges, friends, families, fans and the media, as they all travel from checkpoint to checkpoint along the Yukon Quest trail.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.
There are photos of some of the old teams which originally ran these trails, for there is a palpable sense of history inherent in this great race; the mushers and their dogs literally run in the tracks of some of the greatest sled dog drivers of all time. As the race website notes,”The race is a living memorial to those turn-of-the-century miners, trappers, and mail carriers who opened up the country without benefit of snowmobiles, airplanes, or roads. It was their strength and fortitude that blazed the Trail over which most of the Yukon Quest travels.”
The combination of history, distances, wilderness, and the sheer physical endurance necessary to make the trek captures the imagination like few other sled dog races can, but the country itself, the land the race takes place in, simply captures one’s heart and soul. Robert Service’s epic poem, about a sourdough longing for the country he left behind, puts words to what many who have traveled the Yukon Quest trail still feel today:
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
The Yukon Quest Trail: 1,000 Miles Across Northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory, text and photos by Helen Hegener, additional photographs by Eric Vercammen and Scott Chesney; also included: Trail Notes for Mushers by two-time Yukon Quest Champion John Schandelmeier. Published December, 2014 by Northern Light Media. 151 pages, 8.5″ x 11″ format, bibliography, indexed. $29.00 (plus $5.00 shipping and handling).