Canadian Rangers break the trail out of Dawson City

Yukon Quest mushers heading into Pelly Crossing from Dawson City should be having a relatively easy time this year. The race trail on the Yukon side of the border is not nearly as treacherous as the Alaska side, according to Patrol Sgt. John “Mitch” Mitchell of the Canadian Rangers. Patrol Sgt. John Mitchell heads trailbreaking on the Canadian side.For 25 years, except for in 1985 when he raced the Yukon Quest himself and placed 23rd out of 44 mushers, Mitchell has been grooming Yukon Quest trails. He’s got it down to a science and he and his team take the job very seriously. “We’re the eyes and ears of the Canadian Armed Forces in the north,” he says. As reserve members of the army, he and his men are on official business when they mount their snowmobiles and work for up to 12 hours at a time, logging up to 15 days a piece, grooming a trail in the snow for this 1,000-mile dog sled race. “If the number one musher doesn’t get lost then we’ve done our job,” says Mitchell. “I kind of breathe a sigh of relief whenever someone reaches a checkpoint.” They are protecting Canadian sovereignty in a region where it isn’t feasible to have a permanent military force. They are paid by Canada. And they are notoriously organized and thorough in their trail breaking. Phase One of Ranger-style trail breaking for the 2008 Yukon Quest began on January 6, more than a month before the race began in Fairbanks on February 9. Four Rangers at a time spent up to five days on each segment of trail, punching down the snow with their snowmobiles and slashing the brush to make a clean path. Phase Two involved reestablishing the trail a few weeks later in addition to moving any fallen trees and setting up markings, such as pulling a fallen spruce tree into a corner of the trail to indicate a sharp turn. Phase Three is called “proofing” and is done just 12 to 14 hours before the expected time for the first musher to be traveling on that section of trail. There are four patrol sections: Dawson, Pelly Crossing, Carmacks and Whitehorse. Talking to Mitchell after the trail out of Dawson has been proofed, he is confident it’s one of the best groomed trails his Rangers have ever worked on. “It’s probably the best I’ve ever seen it, good as last year.” During the proofing stage, the Rangers erect reflective markers 500 metres apart, or as far as 1 km in the bush where they are redundant, and as close as 200 metres apart on rivers. He said there is no overflow this year – although that could change with warmer weather, and no jumble ice (unlike the very bumpy trail into Eagle, AK). Mitchell has fond memories of his one-and-only attempt at running the Yukon Quest in 1985 and a few frightening ones. Coming down off Rosebud Summit towards Chena Hot Springs, “I figured I’d lost it.” After a challenging descent, his first sighting was a giant birthday cake surrounded by children. Lucky for him it was all real—a school outing and a kid’s birthday. When a reporter asks what his favourite part of the Yukon Quest is today, it’s not the Start, nor the Finish, nor the tension of a good competition. “My favourite part is working with the Rangers.” For an excellent account of the race from the ground and air, check out Ken Anderson and Gwenn Holdmann’s website at: www.windycreekkennel.comMore news, photos and audio reports: www.newsminer.comAnother excellent blog from fans on the ground in the Yukon:


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