Pilot Journal
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Flying The Yukon Quest

Airplanes support a 1,000-mile sled-dog race through the toughest terrain on the planet

Flying The Yukon QuestThe 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.
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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.


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