The parking lot of Shipyards Park in Whitehorse was filled with excitement and barking on Saturday morning as mushers were getting ready with their dogs to embark on the Yukon Quest 2023. 

Among the furry chaos, however, one musher was calmly standing close to her sled — without any overly excited dogs in sight. 

“We had them all of their lives,” Debbie Knight, who’s running her dogs in the 100-miles race, told CBC News. 

“They are just the family, they are all different. I always say ‘when we let them loose in the yard for their free run, it’s like a school yard at recess’ … We tend to let them do their business, put them back in the kennels, it keeps them calm. That’s why it’s so quiet over here.”

This is the first year in the Quest’s 38-year history that one of the races will end in Dawson City, and the second year that it has not been an international race across the Alaskan border. This year, 16 mushers with teams of up to 12 dogs are competing for prize money. 

You see the difference between the true born leader and a dog that just runs out there because he has to. Some dogs are born to follow and some are born to lead.”– Musher Mayla Hill

Racers had the option to choose a 100-mile (160 kilometres) race to Braeburn, a 250-mile (402 kilometres) race to Pelly Crossing, and a 450-mile (724 kilometres) race to Dawson City.

The event is bringing contestants from different backgrounds, ages and experiences. 

Knight, 67, says she believes she is the oldest contestant in this year’s Quest. She says she will be looking out for rookies. 

“There comes a time when you just … you don’t worry about your time because people are more important, dogs are more important,” she said. “We are always helping each other out there.”

While having more than 30 years of experience running dogs, Knight is competing in this race for the second time only.

“I decided with my age, that this could be the last year, so I wanted to get there and do it,” Knight said. 

“I plan on continuing with running dogs, maybe not racing because of the stress. I like to relax and enjoy the dogs. Just having [them] is good for the mind and soul. When you are out there, there’s such a bonding with them. It’s an incredible relationship.”

A woman is seen on a sled with her dogs
Musher Mayla Hill leaves Whitehorse at the start of the 2023 Yukon Quest dog sled race on Feb. 11, 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Musher Mayla Hill, who is from Grand Prairie, Alta., was packing her sled only a few metres away from Knight.

Hill, 19, is among the youngest participants and is running the longest length — the 450-mile race. 

“The biggest thing today is to finish, to finish this race,” she told CBC News. 

While the age difference and racing experience between Hill and Knight is noticeable, their love and passion for dogs unites them — and it echoes the essence of the race that has been carried over generations for the past 39 years.

“The trust comes on a longer, harder run,” Hill spoke of her dogs.

“When you have a storm with your lead dog, and you can’t even see him but somehow he knows the way … those are the things that build the trust … You see the difference between the true born leader and a dog that just runs out there because he has to. Some dogs are born to follow and some are born to lead.”

A guiding legacy 

Frank Turner, who was part of the group that planned the original race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1984, was among the crowd on Saturday. 

Turner, a veteran musher and former Yukon Quest champ who has run the race dozens of time, was cheering with emotions for the latest edition of the race. 

“We may love the mushers, but what makes this race is the dogs,” Turner said.

“They have been part of the history and culture of the North. This is just a celebration of this.”

He dedicates the Yukon Quest to his friend, musher Bruce Johnson. Johnson was also a member of the original group that met with their Alaskan counterparts, to establish the 1000-mile Yukon Quest.

In 1993, while training for the Quest, he and his dogs broke through the ice on Little Atlin Lake, south of Whitehorse. 

“He died doing what he was passionate about,” Turner said, adding that this commemoration should serve as a reminder that the Yukon’s environment is vastly changing.”

The Yukon Quest race starts regardless of weather and lasts from 10 to 16 days until the final dog team arrives at the finish line.

A dog is seen jumping up in the air with excitment.
Mushers prepare their teams at a staging area in Whitehorse before the start of the 2023 Yukon Quest dog sled race on Feb. 11, 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With files from Meribeth Deen

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