The sun isn’t up yet and Gary Chamberlain is already on the phone, talking to flight service. The news isn’t good. Circle City, a small checkpoint along the sled-dog race route based on the banks of the Yukon River, is reporting 20 to 30 knots of crosswind with blowing snow, the ceilings are low, and the temperature is stuck at 57 degrees F—below zero. All thirty-one mushers and dog teams left Fairbanks, Alaska, almost 30 hours ago for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile trek across Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory in February. For Chamberlain, it’s not a matter of whether or not he’s going to be able to make it into Circle City. It’s just a matter of how.
For weeks before the start of what’s billed as the “toughest dog race in the world,” Chamberlain and a group of volunteer pilots, all loosely referred to as the Yukon Quest Air Force, have flown the race route, hauling officials, extra fuel, survival gear, medical supplies and a potpourri of odds and ends required to make the international event possible. Several of the checkpoint destinations are accessible only by ski plane or the occasional snow-machine rider willing to wager against the wilderness and the 100-plus-mile intervals along the race route.
Chamberlain’s flying skills and his wheel-ski-equipped Cessna 185 have evolved from several years of backcountry flying. Keeping the airplane and the instruments warm in the extreme temperatures is job number one. His C-185 has two heaters under the cowling, and a third inside the cockpit to keep the instruments warm. The cockpit has three GPSs, and in addition to the normal VHF radio stack, he’s also equipped with FM and HF capabilities. “I can literally talk to people from Los Angeles from the Yukon Territory,” he says. At one time or another, Chamberlain’s talents and each of the aircraft’s systems will come into play in what may be some of the most challenging flying in the world.
Over the years, Chamberlain has become anal about the care required to make his airplane operate safely in the bush. Engine preheat isn’t even negotiable (and by the way, despite the harsh conditions, his engines always make TBO). When he shuts down for the night, he slides a set of large, custom-made covers over his wings, elevators and prop blades, just to make sure there’s no possibility of ice or snow when it comes time to fly in the morning. Like most pilots who fly the North, he also wraps a heavily insulated blanket around the cowling to make sure the engine heaters can do their best work.
“The biggest thing we fight is the cold,” he says. “Sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s just too cold to fly. Everything gets so brittle they just break off in your hand—door handles, ailerons. You just have to wait until things warm up.”
“Last year [during the Quest], we lost two airplanes because of the cold,” continues Chamberlain. “One guy had to dead-stick his Cub onto the ice on the Yukon River.”
It was Chamberlain who went in with his C-185 ski plane to rescue the downed pilot. “It wasn’t very much fun. The river was full of jumble ice [large chunks of uplifted ice the size of a pickup truck along the frozen river], and I was afraid we were going to end up being stuck down there. But that guy wouldn’t have survived the night. So what were the choices?”
“This kind of flying up here is not for some yoyak,” says Chamberlain seriously, referring to aviation’s uninitiated. “Lots of days, I might not get any higher than 200 feet. When the visibility gets tough, you have to slow the airplane down. You change altitudes once you start making ice, and you’re poking around, looking for a way through. You have to think of rate and radius, because if you find you can’t get through this canyon, you need room in order to turn the airplane around,” says Chamberlain as he uses his hands to describe a time-honed maneuver that he has learned from decades of experience. “Then, I’ll try it all over again in the next canyon and then maybe the next canyon, until I make it. The thing I hate is when the weather closes things off in front of you and behind you. You may have to set her down for a few days and wait things out.”
After what would have normally been a 45-minute flight, Chamberlain finally makes his way into Circle City two and a half hours later. Terrain and weather also have taken a toll on the racers, many of whom have come from the far reaches of the world to compete. When asked how the Quest compares to its more famous counterpart, the Iditarod, one musher smiled and said, “The Iditarod is just a nice little camping trip. This is a real race.”
Right before the end of the Yukon Quest’s first day, a veteran musher, William Kleedehn, was taken to the hospital with a suspected broken leg, and by the time Chamberlain landed in Circle City, seven other mushers have scratched, less than a fifth of the way into the race. In fact, of the 31 teams who started in Fairbanks, only 20 will cross the finish line 11⁄2 weeks later in Whitehorse, Yukon.
|Several of the checkpoints along the trail are accessible only by ski plane. Dogs dropped from the race at these locations are loaded into the back of Chamberlain’s Cessna and flown out to be reunited with their handlers.|
In spite of the extremely cold weather, Chamberlain discovers that leader Zack Steer and his dogs already have left for Slavens cabin, little more than a shack a million miles from anywhere—but the next checkpoint along the way. Somebody has to get a veterinarian over there. Without any hesitation, Chamberlain motions for Vern Starks, a doctor of veterinarian medicine, to be loaded into the front seat of the C-185. When a Quest official questions the safety of the current flying conditions, Chamberlain looks out from under his beaver hat and wolf fur ruff, and then lowers his voice to a whisper. “I really don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is more serious than perhaps you know. Slavens has gone Oscar Oscar Bravo,” explains Chamberlain, his eyes narrowing.
When the official gives him a puzzled look, Chamberlain’s face finally slides into a smile. “It’s Oscar Oscar Bravo—out of booze.”
Moving the team of nine veterinarians along the trail is a critical function of the Yukon Quest Air Force. As the race develops, distances between leaders and teams bringing up the rear can be dramatic. It’s not unusual for members of the team of dog docs to be spread out several hundred miles apart. Vets and their huge collection of medical gear must be leapfrogged along checkpoints by airplane.
Unlike the Iditarod, mushers can start the race with a maximum of 14 dogs. And also unlike the Iditarod, there are no substitutions for dogs that are cut from the team along the way. The more dogs a Quest musher can keep healthy, the better time he makes along the train. But the team of Quest vets is on point to make sure the need for speed doesn’t put any of the dogs in danger.
“The dogs are thoroughly examined at each checkpoint,” says veterinarian Starks. “It’s a very tough trail. These dogs burn between 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day. That’s three times what an athlete burns riding the Tour de France. Some dogs might get lame, some just may not be feeling right. One way or another, if a vet thinks the dog may be developing a problem, we’ll ask a musher to drop a dog from his team. If we know the dog is at risk, we’ll require the dog to be dropped from the race. Period.”
The “dropped” dogs often become wards of the Quest’s Air Force, airlifted to rendezvous with the handlers while the race continues. When he’s not flying vets or supplies, Chamberlain loads the backseat and cargo area of his Cessna with sled dogs left behind by their teams. The animals are typically placed into large sacks with only their heads exposed to limit the amount of canine chicanery in flight.
“On one flight, I kept hearing all this commotion in the back, and I turned around and looked over my right shoulder and saw one of the sacks was empty. I kept looking out the front to watch where I was going, then back over my right shoulder to try and see where that dog went. Christ, oh dear, I thought, maybe he slid back into the open empennage. Suddenly I felt this hot breath on my left cheek. I looked around and there he was. He gave me a snap right on my nose. Didn’t draw blood, it was just a ‘Hey, how ya doin’?!’ The dog stood there the whole flight just happy as could be, watching the trees go by,” remembers Chamberlain.
Crossing the Canadian border out of Alaska into the Yukon Territory, Chamberlain calls a Canadian flight service station for current weather in Dawson City, another race checkpoint. The briefer trades that information for a race update. “Zack is still leading, but Hans Gatt is bearing down on him,” Chamberlain answers.
Another pilot on frequency hails Chamberlain. “Hey, Gary, you know, they’ve started adding Viagra to the whiskey there in Dawson, eh.”
“No, I hadn’t heard about that,” answers Chamberlain.
“Yeah, that way, you can always pour yourself a stiff one.”
“That’s very good to know,” chuckles Chamberlain. “I tried taking a Viagra once, but it got stuck in my throat. Had a stiff neck for a week.”
Dawson City is roughly the mid-point along the route from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. It’s a picturesque little village on the banks of the Yukon River and, in many ways, unchanged from its days as the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush in the 1890s. Race rules require a 36-hour layover for mushers and their teams, and most of the Quest’s Air Force ends up there for some much deserved R&R as well.
As Chamberlain banks to enter the pattern at Dawson, a call comes over the radio from race marshal Mike McCowan. Musher Rod Boyce left for Dawson 49 hours ago and hasn’t been heard from since. That’s about twice the time it normally takes to make that part of the run, and the Quest official requests the initiation of a search and rescue. Chamberlain adds power and turns back to the trail.
“Airplanes make a huge difference in our SAR efforts,” says McCowan. “You can cover so much more ground than any other way.”
In a previous race, a musher took a wrong turn and was lost for five days. “It was an unbelievably huge area to try and cover without airplanes,” says McCowan. The racer was eventually found alive, even though his survival supplies were nearly exhausted.
During another time, a musher was thrown off his sled and knocked unconscious. His dog team continued without him. The musher was finally located and a ski plane tracked the dogs, landed in the snow and stopped them from certain demise in the Yukon wilderness.
But even searching for lost mushers from the air isn’t foolproof. Fresh snow can quickly cover any tracks, and winds can change the whole look of the landscape in no time. At the end of the short Arctic daylight, Chamberlain hasn’t found the missing musher and is forced to return to Dawson.
The paved but snow-packed runway at Dawson City serves as a gathering spot for other members of the Yukon Quest Air Force, the majority of whom are operating on wheels. Earl Malpass for North Pole Alaska is there with his Cessna 206, Canadian pilot Gerd Mannsterger with a Found Bush Hawk, Ken Loeser in a Seneca, and Kent Owens in a Cessna 170.
For the 2,000 residents of Dawson, the arrival of the Quest is a much-anticipated event. Mushers, covered in icicles, make camp at the river’s edge, handlers arrive with new supplies, and race enthusiasts gather to cheer their favorite team. The international press is there as well, sending reports back by Internet and even shortwave radio to all parts of the globe.
Faye Chamberlain, no known relation to Gary, was a trapper who lived much of her life in a cabin a handful of miles outside of town. She reminisces to a reporter, “Every year, a lot of the teams would stop at my place along the way. It was wonderful to see them each year, catch up, find out what was going on in their lives. It was a family reunion of sorts. I’d have some hot stew on the wood stove and some boiling water. Sometimes the whole team of dogs would come inside my cabin and visit!”
It also would be fair to say that more than a bit of merriment goes on in Dawson City during the Quest’s mandatory layover. Diamond Tooth Gerties makes a rare wintertime opening for gambling; Bombay Peggy’s, originally a brothel, always serves up a party; the Pit goes hard into the night with live music; and the 100-year-old Sourdough Saloon offers one of the area’s most unique libations—a glass of whiskey with a real human toe floating amid the ice cubes (see the sidebar below, “The Sourtoe Cocktail”).
By the next morning, preparations already are under way for the pilots to begin support flights for the final few days of the race into Whitehorse. Although yesterday’s temperatures at Forty Mile, a tiny vestigial camp from back in the gold-rush days, were reported at 60 degrees F below zero, the thermometer has started back up. Chamberlain is busy loading three huge, steel wood-burning stoves into his airplane for a flight to the next checkpoint, Scroggie Creek, an old wooden cabin with spaces between the boards wide enough through which cans of soup can be passed. A group of Canadian rangers already has left for Scroggie by snowmobile, and although they’ll run all night, it’ll be nearly a full day before they arrive to make use of the stoves Chamberlain’s airplane has dropped off for them on the frozen Yukon River.
Despite the chance to get some rest, the pilots still have a bustling camaraderie among them, but as the morning preflight gets under way, a certain melancholy soon creeps into the jovial atmosphere. No one says it, but everyone knows the end of the toughest sled-dog race in the world is now in sight. Many of the pilots will return year after year to volunteer their planes and their skills, but they know the unique fun they’ve experienced, and will continue to experience, by performing this most unique service is almost over for another year.
News about Boyce, the lost musher, arrives as well. Searchers using snow machines have located him overnight, and he’s doing okay. There’s a collective sigh among the group.
There’s a somewhat untenable, but very real, kinship between the Quest pilots and the mushers. All recognize the huge contribution the aviators provide to make the race possible, and the pilots have a reverent respect for the skills of the sled-dog racers.
“I’m flying down the river at 100 feet, the weather is crappy, and I’m straining to see. Then you look down and see a dog team below, and the musher waves,” says Chamberlain. “I think, man, I want to be him.” For both groups, it’s a chance to remain part of what is fast becoming a vanishing way of life, a cherished lifestyle they refer to as simply “living in the True North.”
For more information about the Yukon Quest, log on to www.yukonquest.com.
The Sourtoe Cocktail
Years ago, there was some conversation at a 100-year-old saloon in Dawson City, Yukon, as to what the exact qualifications of a “sourdough” just might be. The honor of being a “sourdough” isn’t given lightly in the Yukon. While definitions vary among resident authorities, it typically means that you have the skills to at least live in Canada’s Northern Territory year-round, and it may even require you to run a trap line or fight off a grizzly with your bare hands. But as with any attempt to define people, there were those folks who fell into a gray area. A consistent method, a benchmark beyond dispute that established, once and for all, the qualifications for a sourdough, had to determined. Enter the Sourtoe Cocktail, an alcoholic drink served in Dawson’s Sourdough Saloon, which originally contained a frostbitten, snapped-off human toe.
Although that toe was eventually (accidentally) swallowed (as was its replacement), the tradition continues. More than 65,000 people have been inducted into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, which requires a customer to order a drink, then for an additional five dollars, a human toe is removed from a jar of pickling salt and added to the libation. The toe must touch your lips or mouth as you drink.
Two years ago, the sourtoe disappeared again. Owner Dick Van Austin arranged for an SOS over the Canadian Broadcasting Service. The next day, his phone rang, and the first replacement toe was on its way. Soon, he was getting calls from everybody.
“One lady called from the U.S.,” remembers Van Austin. “Her mother had been a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, and she told her daughter to arrange for her toes to be willed to the saloon.”
Some Canadians in the area also carry a typical donor card with their driver’s license. But in addition to offering their organs for transplant, their card specifically states that their toes be given to the Sourdough Saloon. For more information, see the Website, www.sourtoecocktailclub.com or www.downtownhotel.ca.