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Broken legs + hypothermia + dogs = The Yukon Quest

Thirty-two years ago the Yukon Quest dogsled race was just a few years old, but there was no shortage of competitors from both sides of the border.

1,600-kilometre dogsled race looks pretty much the same today as it did in 1987

A multi-day cross-border dogsled race that takes mushers from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska begins. 1:04

In 1987 the Yukon Quest dogsled race was happening for just the fourth time. Thirty-two years later, it looks pretty much the same.  

That year, as it did on Feb. 2 of this year, the race began in Whitehorse and was to take 36 competitors — four of them Yukoners — to Fairbanks, Alaska.

"A lot of time, energy and money has gone into preparing for this race," said Yukon reporter Bob Sudeyko for the program Focus North. "We should know in about two weeks which combination of musher and dogs winds up in Fairbanks."

Loreena Mitchell describes the challenges on the trail and how she plans to overcome them. 1:26

Dog whistling 

Musher Loreena Mitchell was one of several women in the race, and it wasn't her first time — unlike 20 of the 36 human competitors. 

All dogs competing in the Yukon Quest were subject to a checkup by a veterinarian before being approved to race. (Focus North/CBC Archives)

She had a pretty good idea of what she had signed up for.

"Until you've experienced it firsthand, I think you underestimate the dangers," Mitchell said.

The CBC cameras captured Mitchell as she rode behind her canine team, whistling to urge them along.

"Once I get out on the trail, I can't sleep," she said. "And that's OK for a few days, but pretty soon you get hypothermia because your body needs rest ... you might make a mistake that you wouldn't make otherwise." 

Mitchell had run the first Yukon Quest in 1984 and said this time around she used a different training regimen that would mean fewer hours on the trail.

She also conferred with a teammate about their strategy in the early going.

"I talked about it with my lead dog," she said. "We both like to sleep a lot when it's dark, so we're going to do most of our moving by day and most of our camping by night." 

CBC reporter Bob Sudeyko explains his findings to Midday host Peter Downie. 1:12

'Broken legs' and 'hypothermic states'

After it began, the race got attention far to the south.

"A lot of us wonder what possesses people to do this," said Peter Downie, host of CBC's Midday, while interviewing Sudeyko.

"They're not in this thing for the money," said the reporter, explaining that the top prize was $15,000 — and it could cost that much just to enter.   

"The sense that I get from them is it's the love of being out there ... of testing themselves, a challenge against nature," he said.

In the end, the winner was Bill Cotter of Nenana, Alaska. Only one Canadian, Francois Veregas of Dawson City, Yukon, managed to finish the race. He came seventh.