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Whitehorse resident competing in his second Yukon Quest sled dog race

By Kristy Koehler, January 17 2019 —

The Yukon Quest, a 1,600-kilometre sled dog race, is steeped in history. The trail from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, traces the route prospectors followed to reach the Klondike during the gold rush. The race lasts between nine to 14 days, as mushers and their teams battle the elements and isolation.

Ask anyone to name a sled dog race and they’ll likely come up with the Iditarod. The famous race was launched in 1973 to preserve the sled dog culture in the North and commemorate the role sled dogs played in settling Alaska. The Yukon Quest, launched in 1984, is lesser known. The purse is smaller and there are far fewer participants. But it is arguably a more gruelling race than the Iditarod.

Canadian racer Nathaniel Hamlyn is one of the youngest mushers in the Yukon Quest, looking to finish his second race. Hamlyn notes the differences between the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest largely owe to the distances between checkpoints.

“There’s about half the number of checkpoints,” Hamlyn said. And while there are hospitality stops, there are vast distances between them. “They’re not checkpoints — they’re basically cabins. You pull up and there’s normally half a bale of straw for your team, but there’s no supplies.”

Racers have to pack all the supplies they’ll need between each checkpoint. There’s no access to additional items. Hamlyn says it can be scary to be alone that long.

“I grew up in the North and I thought I was good alone, but there were points you definitely just wanted to see something human — a light or anything. You’re totally alone in the middle of nowhere. If you actually think where you are — you can get into trouble so quickly,” he said.

There are trackers on the sleds, but once you activate one, you’re out of the race. And, he says, it wouldn’t be a quick rescue if you needed it, owing to the isolation. His biggest worry, though, comes down to the dogs.

“The scariest thing would be to lose your team,” he said. “That would be the worst nightmare.”

Hamlyn always brings it back to his team of Alaskan huskies. He’s quick to point out that the dogs are the real athletes in the race.

“I just kind of stand there and keep them moving,” he humbly states.

The preparation for both animal and human athletes is intense. How does one prepare to be completely isolated, in the bitter cold and totally self-reliant? Hamlyn goes to a remote location near his home to get used to the isolation and having limited supplies.

“Especially for the long races, you have to be mentally tough. You’re alone for a lot of time. The dogs — you have to look after them, and look after yourself as well,” he said.

A Whitehorse resident, Hamlyn is used to the cold. He says it’s actually preferable to racing when the temperatures rise.

“When it’s warm, it’s wet,” he says. He again brings it back to the dogs, thinking of them more than himself.

“They perform better in the cold. They eat better — when it gets really warm their appetite goes down and they get sick easier,” he said.

Despite his extensive training, nothing could have prepared Hamlyn for the actual rigours of the race. He had a plan and a race schedule, but threw them out shortly after beginning.

“Last year it felt like survival. I just kept going and the race wasn’t even part of my mind.

I wasn’t racing —  I just wanted to get to the finish line.”

Hamlyn grew up with sled dogs, not only racing, but as pets. He operates Step Up Kennels in Whitehorse and has a deep love for his canine companions.

“They’re awesome to be around. To see the improvement as you train, it’s really rewarding.

To be alone with them — no noise, just the dogs and all their personalities — it’s pretty great,” he said. “I rely on them. It’s a really cool bond.”

Hamlyn applauds the incredible veterinary care at the checkpoints and says the Yukon Quest keeps the health of the dogs top of mind. You can’t leave a checkpoint unless the team looks healthy and you can’t force the dogs to leave. More rest is mandated if the dogs don’t appear to want to head back out on the trail.

There are always detractors whenever animals are featured in sports. Hamlyn says he understands, but also wants people to know that the dogs love to run.

“I can see how people could look at sled dogs and think you’re pushing them too much but they’re really well looked after. I’m freezing to keep them warm. Just go for a ride and see how happy they are,” Hamlyn said.

Hamlyn feels better prepared for the race this time around.

“Maybe I’ll actually think about racing this year,” he said.

The Yukon Quest begins at noon on Feb. 2.

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