Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Flying The Yukon Quest
Airplanes support a 1,000-mile sled-dog race through the toughest terrain on the planet
|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. |
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.
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