Yukon Quest racers drop off food, gear for checkpoints

Yukon Quest mushers have surpassed a major milestone in preparation for running next month’s race. Tons of race food and gear were dropped off over the weekend for shipping to checkpoints along the thousand mile route between Fairbanks and Whitehorse.

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Brent Sass races to a first-place finish at the 2015 Yukon Quest. (Photo: Emily Russell/KNOM)
Brent Sass races to a first-place finish at the 2015 Yukon Quest. The 2016 race starts Feb 1. (Photo: Emily Russell/KNOM)

Laura Neese decided she wanted to be a long-distance dog musher when she was 9 years old. Ten years later, after finishing high school early and earning a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology, she’s about to run her first 1,000-mile sled dog race.

“I’m just excited to finally be here.”

The 19-year-old rookie drove from Michigan to Fairbanks last week with fourteen dogs and one handler.

In less than two weeks, Neese will join 23 other mushers on the Chena River in downtown

Fairbanks for the start of the 33rd Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race. She’s the youngest in the field.

“My goals are to learn the trail, gain experience, since this is my first thousand mile race, and kind of work toward future years to become competitive.”

On Saturday she dropped off a few dozen bags of race supplies at Summit Logistics. The bags contain everything she needs on the trail: extra booties and blankets, kibble, meat, and fat for the dogs, as well as food for herself.

“I brought three different meals to each checkpoint for myself: pasta, tater tots with cheese, and Pizza Hut pizza.”

She also added a local treat from her hometown, Ohio: “Buckeyes, the chocolate peanut butter cookies.”

On Saturday afternoon, food started pouring in to the big parking lot off Van Horn. A steady stream of dog trucks and trailers pulled up filled with white mesh bags. Volunteers descended, grabbing bags, attaching labels, and stacking them on pallets destined for remote spots of Alaska and the Yukon: Central, Eagle, Pelly Crossing.

There are nine checkpoints in the race where mushers can reload on these supplies. But some are as far as 200 miles apart. Everything they need in between has to go in their sled.

“So, a pair of snowshoes, an ax, fuel, a cooker, sleeping bag. Anything for the dogs and musher to survive staying out there in the cold,” says race volunteer Marie Oleson. She’s signing in the mushers and overseeing the flow of baggage. As the day goes on, the piles grow taller and taller.

Fairbanks musher Cody Strathe dropped off more than 3,000 pounds of gear. That’s 44 bags for himself, plus another 40 for his wife, Paige Drobny. They’ve both run the Quest before, but never in the same year.

They spent the past two weeks cooking, cutting, bagging, and organizing food – in between training runs.

“It’s a little hectic. Right now we sometimes wonder why we’re doing it but here in a week or two it’ll become clear again and it’ll be a lot of fun.”

Their friends helped them put together the menu for the trail. Strathe is most excited about the little cheesecakes waiting for him along the way. There’s a special dessert for the dogs too.

“We’ve got tripe. We’ve got salmon. We’ve got beaver meat. Actually, beaver meat’s probably the equivalent of cheesecake for them. It’s really rich. They eat it no matter what. They love it – it makes them happy.”

That’s the most important part of long-distance racing, Strathe says. Keeping the runners happy.

“Music is definitely a secret weapon. And this year we had a bunch of friends donate iPods that were all loaded up with music. So we’ve got an arsenal of good booty shakin’ and bluegrass and whatever else music. So we’ll be able to keep the morale high by keeping yourself happy. If you’re happy then the dogs are happy.”

Volunteers wrapped the pallets in plastic wrap and divided them up by country – half the gear went in the back of a semi truck headed for the border. The rest was stored in a pair of Connexes.

The mushers looked relieved as they drove off with empty trucks.

The Yukon Quest starts in Fairbanks on February 6 at 11a.m.

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