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As the Yukon Quest kicks off, some young mushers see bright future for the sport

Yukoner Louve Tweddell grew up watching their father compete in the Yukon Quest 1000, between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. Tweddell is competing this year in the Yukon Quest 250, from Whitehorse to Pelly Crossing, Yukon. (Submitted by Louve Tweddell - image credit)
Yukoner Louve Tweddell grew up watching their father compete in the Yukon Quest 1000, between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. Tweddell is competing this year in the Yukon Quest 250, from Whitehorse to Pelly Crossing, Yukon. (Submitted by Louve Tweddell - image credit)

The Yukon Quest sled dog race — which kicks off on Saturday in Whitehorse —  isn't quite the epic race it used to be, and some young mushers say they're just fine with that.

The annual event has changed dramatically in recent years, with the end of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometre) international race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, in favour of shorter races held within the Yukon.

Some mushers also say that challenges keep mounting for people who want to participate in the sport, but what they see happening at a community level has contributed to a sense of optimism about the future.

From the perspective of Quest organizers, though, mushers want their old race back.

"The Quest has a long and storied epic history of the toughest race on earth, traveling from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, or Whitehorse to Fairbanks — and that's what the mushers want to compete in," said Benjamin Smith, executive director of the race.

"They want to have that challenging race that rivals the Iditarod and really honours the tradition."

Yukon musher Louve Tweddell, 23, grew up watching their father compete in the Yukon Quest 1000. Tweddell said not getting to do the full race was a hard thing to accept.

"That being said, last year I ran the Yukon Quest 450, so all the way to Dawson City, and I was very happy with my experience," they said.

"I think the Yukon Quest made a really great decision by having smaller races, as well as the fact that nowadays, mushers are actually having a smaller number of dogs due to financial difficulties."

Tweddell, who has 21 dogs, says due to housing challenges in the Yukon, most mushers have kennels with just six to eight dogs.

This year, Tweddell is racing in the YQ 250, between Whitehorse and Pelly Crossing.

Twenty-year-old Mayla Hill is the only competitor under 30 in the race to Dawson City this year. But Tweddell isn't concerned that there are mostly older mushers competing.

Musher Mayla Hill leaveS Whitehorse at the start of the 2023 Yukon Quest dog sled race on Feb. 11, 2023.
Musher Mayla Hill leaveS Whitehorse at the start of the 2023 Yukon Quest dog sled race on Feb. 11, 2023.

Musher Mayla Hill leaves Whitehorse at the start of last year's Yukon Quest dog sled race. Hill is the only musher in this year's Yukon Quest 450 race to Dawson City who's under the age of 30. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I believe the future generations will orient more around sprint races," They said.

"Two weeks ago there was a Knik 200 [sled dog race in Alaska] and the person who won that was actually a 16-year-old girl. I see that and think that the future is getting brighter. Five years ago I would have said it was a bit dimmer."

Virginia Sarrazin, the secretary-treasurer of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association, says smaller, community-oriented races make it possible for people to get involved even if they don't have dogs or equipment.

Access, she says, is key, and as long as people love the sport, they'll roll with logistical changes like a shorter race.

"It's a lifestyle," says Sarrazin. "It's a passion, and that's what matters to people."

As for the recent warm spell that created icy conditions and forced the Yukon Quest start line to be moved this year, Sarrazin says it's just bad luck.

"It doesn't make a difference. People will get to the start line and then enjoy the race. It's all good."