THE TALE OF THE QUEST TRAIL

The Yukon Quest drives me nuts. A great race, wonderful format, pretty easy country, and no damn trail!These thoughts all came to a head in April of 2008; so instead of just whining about it, as is my usual dogmusher mentality, I decided to try to do something. I attended a Quest Board meeting and offered to put a trail in for the 2009 race. It really seemed pretty easy. The Canadian Rangers do their side of the race—leaving only about 550 miles of trail to do on the Alaskan side of the world. I have extensive trail experience: establishing trails for the Gin Gin 200, Taiga 300, the Copper Basin 300, and several others, plus well over 100,000 miles of snowmobile experience—550 miles would be cake. The Quest Board was interested, and in August they agreed to “hire” me to establish a viable trail on the Alaskan portion. I use the word ”hire” quite loosely, as I figured my compensation at a little less than a nickel per hour. Then again that’s about two times as much as I make running dogs. I immediately went to work figuring logistics. I needed a trail change. Getting rid of the non-productive loop through North Pole and coming straight through Two-Rivers should make the race more spectator friendly in the area near Fairbanks. Also, attempting to implement this change would be a good test of how much leeway the Quest was willing to give me in working with the trail. I soon found that the organization was not only committed to a great trail, they were excited about the prospect and were going to insure that it happened. Trails through backcountry Alaska are always easier on paper than in fact. I anxiously awaited freeze-up on the Yukon River, knowing the River was likely to be the trouble spot. Preliminary reports were good. The Yukon froze early and the first snows were substantial. Everything was going our way. Then the Yukon broke open in spots, pushing slush and chunk ice along in fifty mile sections. The winds came blowing clean Eagle, Rosebud and Boulder Summits. The reports came in, “Can’t get across Rosebud, it’s all rocks,” from a group riding out of Fairbanks. From Eagle came the news: “The worst freeze-up anyone can remember! The Yukon is impassable!” My contacts in Circle City told me, “I think it can be done for a ways up river, but maybe not until it overflows…” Overflow, just what I needed. If you ride a snowmobile, that’s the last thing you want into! The folks in Eagle, Alaska have been putting in trails along the Yukon for decades. They know what they are about. If they tell me “impassable,” then I believe them. I began searching for alternative routes. I looked at maps, talked with pilots, talked with everyone I could find concerning trails or routes paralleling the Yukon River. Soon I had more hearsay information than I knew what to do with—and as it finally turned out, I did nothing with it. In late December, word came from Andy Bassich, the premier trail guru below Eagle, that David Jonas had come up through the “impassable” ice all of the way from Glen Creek, some sixty-five miles below Eagle with a four-dog team. If he could make it, so could we.Mike Reitz, Bruno Baureis and myself planned to leave Circle City enroute to Eagle on January 16th. We gave ourselves a week to make Eagle and return all of the way back to Fairbanks. The January cold snap that brought fifty below temperatures to the Yukon abated a couple of days before our scheduled departure. The temperature was a balmy +25 when we arrived in Circle late the night of the 15th. Greg Shaffer, the owner of Frontier Opportunities, drove us out of Fairbanks to the drop-off point. Greg was providing the machines that Bruno and I would be riding for our trip. Greg is one of the Quests biggest supporters, not only furnishing snowmobiles, but also working portions of the trail himself, and helping with checkpoint logistics.Daylight found us on our way up the Yukon. Brian Asplund, a trapper from Circle, rode with us for the first twenty-five miles. He knows the River crossings. The Yukon River has been traveled extensively by dogteams since the gold rush days. Travel is done along the sides and back sloughs of the River in an attempt to stay on the smoothest ice. River crossings have been in essentially the same locations for most of that time—spots where the Yukon is normally less jumbled. We crossed for the first time near six mile, not too bad. Using pulaskis, (a tool with an axe head on one side, an adze on the other), we chopped the worst of the ice chunks and filled in cracks to smooth the passing. Brian’s machine spit a left front suspension shock in the beaver sloughs twenty-some miles above Circle. He turned to limp his machine back home. Mike, Bruno and I pressed on. It was nearly dark when we reached a shelter cabin forty-five miles from Circle. Bruno and Mike stopped to get the fire going while I poked another half-dozen miles further along to the crossing at Tacoma Bluff. “It looks rough,” I told my companions back at the cabin. The temperature was 45 degrees.The next morning we moved out in the dark upriver to a huge drift pile to cut a supply of firewood to leave at the Smith shelter cabin. The gray morning was warm—warm enough to ride in polar fleece. We chopped our way through the jumble at Tacoma Bluff and on to the Park Service Headquarters at Slavens’ cabin. The day’s travel brought good sections of ice and bad. Mike, who had traveled the this section of the Yukon many times, was our guide as we fumbled our way along brush-choked back sloughs and over long icy sections to the Glen Creek cabin, sixty-five miles below Eagle. The tiny shelter was a welcome sight in our headlights of our snowmobiles, perched at the head of a bluff, overlooking another ice-piled crossing. Day three found us in some the worst ice conditions we were to see on this trip. The jumble near the Nation River was unbelievable. It took a couple hours to cross from the Nation side of the Yukon to 4th of July Creek. We met Andy Bassich and David Jonas just below the Nation, puttering along on their Skidoo Tundras. They had been chopping ice for several days and told us that although it was “not too good,” that travel toward Eagle was “doable.” The overland trails down from Eagle were in place and useable for the first twenty-five miles. We reached Trout Creek late in the day, finding Mike Sager, the owner, there with a broken knee sustained in the jumble ice just upriver. The night was spent at Andy and Kate’s place near Eagle. Mike and Bruno stayed while I ran the thirty mile round trip to pick up fuel, returning by midnight. Light rain began to fall, melting the already scant snow.The trail from Eagle to the Border was established and staked. Wayne Hall, John Borg and others had been over American Summit and Earl ran the 40-Mile River from Clinton Creek. We began our return leg. Sections of trail with minimal snow had none by morning. We spent much of the day with our cargo sleds passing us on ice too slick to stand on, falling through shelf ice, and avoiding open sections of River. Thirty-eight miles was the best we could do in a long day on the machines. Nightfall left me with serious doubts that a dogteam could travel safely though these conditions unless we received snow.No sooner said than done! I went outside at 5:00 a.m. and found the rain had turned to snow with four inches of fresh white powder and dropping temperatures. The snow depth increased as we traveled on toward Circle City. Some portions of our trail had received as much as eight inches. Luck was on our side.Our luck continued on the return to Fairbanks. Eagle Summit was almost calm with great snow—at least for there, and the trail down to the Mile 101 dog-drop was almost perfect. Eric Cosmutto and his crew of trail volunteers had spent several weekends cutting and grooming from Eagle Summit to Rosebud, so it was essentially just a great ride for us. On our return to the big City, Greg retrieved us from the Nordale Road crossing on the Chena River and we surveyed our machines for damage. Mike had sustained some minor undercarriage damage to his Skidoo, while Greg’s Cats needed mostly cosmetic repairs. The Alaskan Quest trail was established. Never before did the Yukon Quest have a trail in January! The 2009 Yukon Quest began on February 14th. Bruno Baureis and I climbed back on the Cats a day sooner out of Fairbanks and headed to Dawson City, Yukon. Eric Cosmutto, Mark Backes, and Mark’s friend Myna left Whitehorse just ahead of the dog teams, en-route to Fairbanks. We would connect in Dawson. Bruno and I had a late start out of Fairbanks. There was cutting to do on the trail and some of the stakes were down due to snowmobile traffic. It was 2:00 a.m. when we reached the little cabin at Milepost 101. The following day, Eagle Summit, Central, and Circle City fell quickly behind us. Eric Cosmutto and his crew had groomed the 101 section. The guys from Central had their section of trail immaculate and out of Circle, the Park Service had sent two machines to the Charley River on a sheep survey. This area of the Yukon had received better than a foot of snow in the past couple of weeks and the going was perfect. The trail was fast and well-packed. We spent the night at the Shelter cabin on the Kandik. The wind howled, but our trail along the Yukon River ice shelf remained intact. The next morning found us on five miles of glare ice near the mouth of Washington Creek. We spent hours searching for the best route through this section and cut stakes into the ice in spots where the dogs would not be likely to knock them down. We finally were satisfied and continued past the Glen Creek cabin and on to the Rock Creek Sloughs. When mushers think of a tough section on the Eagle to Circle run, the Rock Creek Sloughs is the area they are thinking of—windblown snow, glassy ice, drift stumps, rocks and sand. No markers. Not this year. The wind had touched the Sloughs from a different angle. There was mostly good snow and we zipped through with no trouble. Upriver from Rock Creek the initial run we had made in January had paid off. We had done our chopping and smoothing. Andy Bassich and the rest of the guys around Eagle had also spent untold hours working hard. The little snow that the area had received worked wonders. What had been impassable glare ice was now a decent trail. It was not easy, far from perfect, but nothing dangerous or particularly difficult. The run from Eagle to Dawson City, Yukon was anti-climatic. The Taylor Highway, American Summit and the 40-Mile was a 50 mph trail, for dogs that could use it that fast… We were in Dawson with a pretty darn good trail behind us and all of the way to the finish line in Fairbanks. Though we didn’t know it on our arrival in Dawson, we were to get even more snow prior to the racers reaching Eagle, which would smooth the trail even more. The Quest teams sang praises of the trail at the Finish banquet—giving me credit for a great trail. Little did they understand that 40 people put that trail in on the Alaska side. Bruno and I had a wonderful fun riding Greg’s machines on the trail. Andy Bassich and David Jonas chopped through the ice near Eagle, on Russ Sperry’s trapline by Circle, on Eric Cosmutto’s groomed trail at 101, and on Sonny Lindner’s well-marked trail near Fairbanks. All we did is connect the dots—the sections of trail that were established and put in by Yukon Quest volunteers, who again pounded a trail through one of the coldest and toughest parts of Interior Alaska—-just as they have done for the past twenty-five years. John Schandelmeier resides in Paxson & Maclaren River, Alaska. A lifelong Alaskan, John has run the Yukon Quest 18 times, and won it twice. He is a commercial fisherman, professional dog musher, husband and father.

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