Deadlines, dog sleds, and diving temperatures: Covering the Quest

Would you let sub-zero temperatures, intimidating contestants, and packs of dogs keep you from covering a story? A rookie reporter from Ontario, Sam Riches, learns the 'code of the North' on the trail of one of the most famous dog sledding races in the world.

Would you let sub-zero temperatures, intimidating contestants, and packs of dogs keep you from covering a story? A rookie reporter from Ontario, Sam Riches, learns the 'code of the North' on the trail of one of the most famous dog sledding races in the world.

Halfway through January, my publisher at the Whitehorse Star called me into her office. It was the middle of the day; our daily deadline had just passed. I was relaxed. "So you're ready for the Quest?" she asked me. Her tone emphasized that this was a statement, not a question.

"Of course," I said. "I mean…I'm all set."

This is surely not what I meant.

The Quest is short for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. A 1,600-kilometre journey through some of the most untouched and remote wilderness in the North. Having just moved to the Yukon from Toronto two months prior, I was a still getting to know my way around the city, I'd never traveled to Alaska and I didn't know a thing about dog mushing.

"That's good," she said. "You'll be fine."

"I can't wait," I responded.

This was true. There was less than two weeks before the race started and I had a to-do list that filled a packet of post-its and spread across my desk like a patchwork quilt.

The race alternates direction each year but always starts and ends between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse. This year the race started on the Alaskan side and headed south.

I went back to my desk, ignored the post-its and checked the weather in Fairbanks. It was 43 below Celsius. That night, I bought long-underwear.

I spent the next two weeks absorbing as much pertinent information as I could find. I went to small local races. I talked to recreational mushers. I called veterinarians. I watched video of past races. I researched this year's participants and read through The Star's archives. I felt ready.

I arrived in Fairbanks on February 1st for the Quest's Start and Draw Banquet. It was my first opportunity to catch a glimpse of the musher's personalities and introduce myself. It didn't take long to learn the mushing community is a tight-knit bunch.

Many of the competitors had spent years racing against one another. They had shared nights on the trail, battling a complete lack of sleep, heavy winds, and temperatures that could drop well below minus 50. One by one they went on stage to draw their starting bib numbers.

Some were quiet, reserved and shy. Some were exuberant. Most had been drinking. One of the mushers stood out from the pack: Hugh Neff.

Neff spoke with confidence, energy and authority. He was a polarizing figure, challenging, but kind. I later learned that Neff had a long and tumultuous relationship with the Quest. He had racked up a long list of penalty infractions over his career and had developed a reputation as one of the bad boys of the sport. The race would mark the 20th 1,600-km race of his career and his ninth time running the Quest.

He'd never won a race.

Neff spoke of the tradition of the Quest and the bond the racers form, their shared connection in battling the elements, and embracing the 'code of the North.'

He told his competitors that in a sport that challenges your survival skills you have to support one another.

"We're not racing against each other," he said. "We're racing with each other."

After the banquet, I went back to the hotel and emptied my bags. I had brought two. The first bag was my media kit, containing my laptop, a camera, a recorder, four steno notepads, a few dozen pencils, and an assortment of extra batteries.

The second bag was my personal gear. Long johns, pants, a wool sweater, a fleece zip-up, underwear, wool socks, and about 20 hand warmers. I would use them to keep my recorder, camera batteries, toes and fingers as warm as I could.

My second night in Fairbanks, with the race set to begin the next day, I visited a pub with one of the local reporters. A few of the mushers were there, including Neff.

I approached him and told him my story. He asked me if I'd ever been to Alaska, I told him no. He asked me if I'd ever covered long distance dog mushing before, I told him no. He asked me if I wanted a beer, I told him yes.

"You're greener than green, kid," he told me, with a smile. "Good luck. You're going to need it."

The next morning I was out the door by 8 a.m. The mushers were gathered near the trail preparing their teams and getting ready to file into the starting chute. I talked about starting strategy with the veteran teams and fears about the trail with the rookies.

Once all the mushers had made their way onto the trail, three Alaska-based reporters and I jumped in a silver Ford F250 truck and headed south to the first checkpoint.

The truck would soon become our sleeping quarters, work-space, and kitchen.

Our strategy was to stay at the front of the pack and luckily for us the top six or seven teams were all within a few hours of each other for most of the race.

If the leader arrived at 10 p.m. and the rest of the teams were an hour behind it meant you got one hour of sleep in the truck and then you had to be back on the trail, taking photos, conducting interviews, and writing stories.

It didn't matter what time a team arrived–it had to be captured. Everything else came second.

There are 11 checkpoints in the race, some of them in communities that contain less than 50 people. Others, like Eagle, Alaska, are only accessible by plane.

One of the checkpoints was in the remote Yukon community of Pelly Crossing, which is home to around 250 residents, the majority being of the Selkirk First Nation and Northern Tutchone culture. It was at this checkpoint that the importance of profiling the elements that make a long distance race possible really set in.

Three years ago the local RCMP detachment was forced to operate the checkpoint at the absence of any community initiative to take part in the race.

This year was different.

With the help of seven local students, the RCMP, along with a local holistic nutritionist were prepared meals and provided sleeping arrangements in the local community centre.

This was a welcomed development on the trail; several of the communities along the way graciously housed the media and Quest staff in the gymnasiums of their school or community centre. It was a nice way of getting to know local people and also to catch an hour or two of warm, sheltered sleep.

For the students in Pelly Crossing, the checkpoint served as an opportunity to earn school credits through less conventional and restrictive means than traditional classroom learning.

For the volunteers that were working alongside them, it was a monumental development within the community to get the locals involved and teach the students practical skills.

My experience at Pelly Crossing was just what I needed to get reenergized. By that point we'd been on the trail for 10 days and I was ready for the warmth of my own bed and a long, hot shower.

Four days later we were back in Whitehorse. 

Just after 5 a.m. the winner crossed the finish line. It was Hugh Neff.

Allen Moore, another veteran musher, came in 26 seconds behind Neff. It was the closest finish in the history of the Quest.

With tears streaming down his face, Neff was humble and gracious in victory. "Even if I came in second, I wouldn't have cared; I was having fun out there and Allen's a buddy of mine. He won this race just as much as I did," he said. "We're taught that we all want to win and be champions and all that. But for me, coming in first is not what it's all about. It's about what you do when you do well in life."

I learned quickly that in covering a long distance event like the Quest, your rapport with the competitors and staff makes or breaks your coverage.

The relationship I had formed with Neff at the start of the race paid dividends throughout. He was comfortable speaking with me and always receptive to my questions.

I can only imagine what it's like to get tape recorders and notepads shoved under your nose after being on the trail for 36 hours straight but most, if not all, of the mushers were fairly approachable.

By the time I returned to Whitehorse, I no longer felt like the green reporter that had chatted with Neff before the start of the race.

After two weeks on the trail, I had learned how to handle a traveling international press junket with an absence of sleep, food, and personal hygiene.

I'm already looking forward to getting back on the trail in 2013.

Sam Riches is a freelance journalist and the Sports Editor at the Whitehorse Star. He has spent most of his life living in the Greater Toronto Area, though he has always had an affinity for the North. After completing journalism school at the University of King's College in May 2011 he obtained his position at the Star.

All photos are credited to Sam Riches/Whitehorse Star.