Yukon Quest heads for international divorce in dispute over dog care

The Yukon Quest international sled dog race appears to have reached the end of the trail, as the race's two organizing boards — one in Alaska, one in Yukon — say they simply can't work together anymore.

It's for the good of the dogs, says Yukon board member, citing cross-border 'conflict in values'

Dogs at the start of the 2020 Yukon Quest. The 1,600-kilometre (1,000-mile) race is traditionally run annually between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. This week, organizers in Alaska announced they will no longer work with Yukoners to stage an international race. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

After a nearly 40-year union, they're calling it quits — citing some irreconcilable differences.

The Yukon Quest international sled dog race appears to have reached the end of the trail, as the race's two governing boards — one in Alaska, one in Yukon — say trust has been broken between them and they simply can't work with each other anymore. Each side mostly blames the other. 

"I'm sad and very emotional about this separation. It's just devastating to the history of the Quest," said Mark Weber, vice-president of the race's Alaska board of directors.

"But we were given ... an ultimatum, basically."

Yukon musher Frank Turner, who sits on the Yukon board, said he was also regretful.

"I think that nobody feels, hopefully, really good about where we are right now. We honestly, honest and truly, tried to negotiate," Turner said.

"It comes down to a real conflict in values."

Rest stops and vet checks

The dispute seems to centre on the rules for the grueling, 1,600-kilometre international race, specifically around the amount of mandatory rest stops and vet checks on the trail.

The Canadians were pushing for more rest for the dog teams and an additional vet check. The Americans were resistant. 

According to John Hopkins-Hill, operations manager for the Yukon Quest in Canada, the two boards had been actively negotiating until a few weeks ago. Then, he says, on Monday, the Canadians were blindsided by an announcement from the Alaska board.

The Alaska board's decision came as a 'total surprise,' said John Hopkins-Hill, operations manager for Yukon Quest Canada. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

In a news release, the Alaskans said the two organizing boards "will no longer work together to stage an international race," starting in 2023.

That decision came as a "total surprise," said Hopkins-Hill.

"We had no idea that there was going to be a press release coming out Monday," he said.

According to the news release from Alaska, the rule changes proposed by the Yukon race board "would have irreparably altered the fundamental principles on which the Yukon Quest was founded."

Weber called the proposed changes "drastic."

"Yukon wanted to promote and have a race that included 120 hours of mandatory rest, which, you know, 52 hours is our standard rest that we've had for the last number of years," he said.

"Our bylaws state the purpose of the race is to promote the wilderness experience and the traditions of the dog musher ... It just didn't speak to the spirit of the race and what it was designed around in 1984 by a group of dog mushers."

A musher passes next to open water in the 2018 Yukon Quest. Race board members in Alaska and Yukon disagreed about the amount of mandatory rest and vet checks there should be along the grueling, 1,600-kilometre trail. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Weber said his board is not against change, but he argues that the Yukon board went about things the wrong way by circumventing the race's rules committee and presenting a "deal or no deal" scenario to the Alaska board.

"When they first presented that, it was such a drastic change that we just, you know, met as a board and it was unanimous that we can't support that," Weber said.

Hopkins-Hill characterizes it as a "disheartening" breakdown in trust between the two boards.

"The two boards weren't in a position to really work together here. And for whatever reason, that trust broke down. And once that happens, I think it's hard to hard to be productive at that point," Hopkins-Hill said.

'A dog with 2 heads'

Frank Turner, a veteran musher and former Yukon Quest champ who has run the race dozens of times, says the race has always been based on a shaky long-distance marriage. He's been involved since the beginning, in the early 1980s, and says the seeds of discord were there from the start.

"It kind of was described as a dog with two heads," he said.

"The vision in the beginning was that the Quest would be a celebration of people who lived in the North, not according to whether they were Alaskans or Yukoners, but we were Northerners. But inherent in that was a lot of politics in terms of how decisions were going to be made."

Turner, who runs a kennel outside Whitehorse, has long been outspoken about dog care. A few years ago he helped spearhead a formal association for Yukon mushers to ensure dogs are well kept and cared for.

'The only thing we got back from [the Alaskans] is, 'we don't want any changes,'' said veteran musher Frank Turner, who sits on the race's board in Yukon. (Muktuk Adventures)

He was also enthusiastic about the shorter Yukon Quest events organized last year in Yukon when the pandemic made an international race impossible. Those races incorporated more mandatory rest for the dog teams which Turner argued was necessary to prevent mushers from running their animals too hard.

According to Turner, the Yukon board pushed for similar changes to the longer international race that was to return next winter. 

"The only thing we got back from [the Alaskans] is, 'we don't want any changes. We want it to be the way it's always been.' And we're saying, 'well, no, I don't think ethically we can do that anymore.' And so that reached an impasse," Turner said.

Weber, meanwhile, argues that he's simply relying on the the race marshals, vets, and mushers to determine what the dogs need.

"We rely on the professionalism of the people involved in the race to make those decisions," Weber said.

Race officials in both Yukon and Alaska say that they will go ahead and organize race events for next February — but only on their own side of the border.

"We plan on moving on with the traditions as set up originally with the Yukon Quest, and we wish [Canadian organizers] all the luck," said Weber.

"We just want to put on a race that everybody involved can be proud of," said Hopkins-Hill. 

With files from Claudiane Samson and Mike Rudyk