Mushers question future of Yukon Quest after this winter's race cancelled

The cancellation of this winter's Yukon Quest sled dog race on the Canadian side is being met with some disappointment, and also concern that it might be the beginning of the end for the 1,600-kilometre international race.

Race official dismisses concerns, saying event will return 'bigger and better' in 2022

Musher Ryne Olson leaves Carmacks, Yukon, in the 2019 Yukon Quest sled dog race. There will be no Yukon Quest this winter in the territory because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

The cancellation of this winter's Yukon Quest sled dog race on the Canadian side is being met with some disappointment, and also concern that it might be the beginning of the end for the 1,600-kilometre international race.

"I'm very concerned about that. I really hope that isn't the case," said Michelle Phillips, a musher based in Tagish, Yukon, who finished second in last year's Yukon Quest.

"I'd like to see it continue. It's an important race ... important to the mushing community, important for tourism, important for young mushers, it's important to keep those historical roots alive."

The 1,600-kilometre international sled dog race has been held annually for 37 years. It typically draws mushers and fans from around the world to Yukon during what can be the coldest and quietest time of year — early February.

In June, race officials decided that border restrictions would make the usual Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks, Alaska, race impossible this winter, so they decided there would be two smaller races on either side of the border.

'I'd like to see it continue. It's an important race,' said Yukon musher Michelle Phillips. (Steve Silva/CBC)

This past weekend, however, the Yukon Quest International Association (Canada) board voted to pull the plug entirely on the 2021 event in Yukon. Officials said there were several factors behind the decision, including border restrictions, loss of sponsors, and the risk of COVID-19 exposure to communities along the route.

"Probably a prudent decision," said Lee Bodie, manager of the Tatchun Centre General Store in Carmacks, Yukon, one of the communities along the race route. He's also the community's mayor.

"We will feel a small impact from [the cancellation], but we will struggle on as we have in the rest of the COVID crisis." 

Socially distanced 'by nature'

Marcelle Fressineau, a Whitehorse musher and race veteran who planned to enter again this year, said she's also disappointed.

"I thought they were going to do Whitehorse-Dawson, and it was perfect for me," she said in French.

"The dog sledding sport, you are socially [distanced] by nature. So the risk there is really zero."

American musher Andrew Pace and his sled dog team get ready at the start line of the 2019 Yukon Quest in Whitehorse. The start line alternates each year between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. This year it would have been in Whitehorse. (Crystal Schick/The Canadian Press)

Fressineau also shares Phillips's concerns for the future of the race. 

"Some were saying that we should not worry, that the 1,000-mile [1,600-kilometre] race would be back in 2022. [But] I don't know," she said.

But Bev Regier, president of the Yukon Quest International Association (Canada) board, dismisses those concerns. She says this is not the end of the Yukon Quest.

"No, of course not," she said.

"We're still going to do fundraisers to raise money for the 2022 race and work hard, you know, we'll get additional sponsors and so forth." 

It's an important race ... it's important to keep those historical roots alive.- Michelle Phillips, musher

She said it was a tough decision to cancel this winter's race, but it had to be done.

"I know the mushers are really disappointed, but, you know, we do have to be very careful in what we're doing, you know, in this time," she said.

"It's sad, but we'll be bigger and better in 2022."

Whitehorse dog musher Marcelle Fressineau says she's also concerned about the race's future. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Frank Turner, a former Quest champion, is also disappointed with the board's decision. Turner was a board member until a couple of months ago when he said he was kicked off for being "disruptive."

Turner wonders if there could have been a way to stage some kind of event, even if the longer international race was impossible this year.

"You have to think outside of the box this year because it's such an unusual year," he said.

"Maybe they could have a 100-mile race that would be really good for younger people that have dreams to some day run in the Quest."

Meanwhile, in Alaska, there are still some races being planned. Yukon Quest officials there announced a few weeks ago that the shorter, 492-kilometre YQ300 race would begin in Fairbanks on Feb. 13.

And the famous Iditarod is still scheduled to go ahead in March — with Phillips and Fressineau on the roster. 

Phillips says she's not sure how it will work with getting across the border, though she's already entered the race.

"My thought is, you know, maybe we could get an allowance to go through the borders. What they're doing in Alaska, people get the COVID test, you have to get the COVID test right away, prove that it's negative, and then you're OK," she said.

"We're just going to, you know, see what happens and roll with it. That's all we can do now."

With files from Claudiane Samson and Mike Rudyk


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