The 25th Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race had not even begun before the first major story broke on Friday — teams will be trucked from the Chena Hot Springs checkpoint to the Mile 101 dog drop to avoid a 42-mile stretch that includes a rocky and snow-sparse Rosebud Summit.“The trail conditions … are not adequate for safe travel of the dogs,” first-year race marshal Doug Grilliot told media assembled for a pre-race meeting Friday in downtown Fairbanks. “There’s not enough snow to control a dog team with 14 dogs.”Of particular concern were rolling steep descents on the backside of 3,640-foot Rosebud Summit that are littered with exposed sharp rocks, Grilliot said.“With the snow up there, we probably could do it, but we’re going to err on the side of caution,” Grilliot said, adding that the final decision was solely his but that he collected considerable input over the last several days from others.The change means that mushers reaching Chena Hot Springs, 99 miles into the race, will have five to six hours added to a mandatory two-hour break, Grilliot said. That will give teams time to drive back down Chena Hot Springs Road and up the Steese Highway to Mile 101.The decision came after much debate, Grilliot said.“We thought long and hard about it. We don’t want to change the integrity of the race,” Grilliot said.Race rookie Julie Estey supports the change.“From a rookie standpoint, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that the Quest has my dogs’ interests at heart,” said Estey, who before this year was on the officials’ side of the equation as the Quest’s executive director.But there is also a tinge of lament. Estey knows the beauty of the area because she went there by snowmachine to clean up after the 2006 race.“As a rookie, you want to see all these things you’ve been hearing about, but not at the dogs’ expense. It’s disappointing, but it’s not worth risking the dogs’ or the mushers’ health or the sleds’ health,” Estey said.Brent Sass of Fairbanks was not surprised by the announcement. But being a musher who trains and thrives in tough conditions, he’d been looking forward to tackling Rosebud Summit despite the reports of rough trail.“It’s kind of a bummer. I wish it would be in there,” said Sass, who had not visited Rosebud this season but last Monday went on a proofing mission over nearby Eagle Summit and gave race officials the thumbs up there.Sass wasn’t about to question the move, however.“I fully respect Doug’s decision for doing it,” Sass said, adding that it will have little impact on his race strategy.Rosebud Summit, followed by Eagle Summit — which remains part of the race route — typically wreaks enough havoc that several teams end up scratching before the race is 200 miles old.Friday’s decision may mean more mushers ultimately reach the Whitehorse finish line.The lost distance will not be made up, shortening the 1,000-mile Quest to about 960 miles.In the previous 24 runnings of the Quest, dogs have been trucked because of poor trail conditions on several occasions, including during the inaugural 1984 race (60 miles from Carmacks, Yukon, to Fox Lake) and most recently in 2003 (79 miles from Braeburn to Carmacks).Meanwhile, the Quest 300, which begins at 5 p.m. Saturday and was to go from Fairbanks to Circle, will enforce the same change.But race officials are researching the possibility of backtracking from Circle and ending in Central to keep the race at 300 miles.
Lost Sports of the Winter Olympics: The fast and furry world of sled dog racing