In the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race two weeks ago, temperatures reportedly dropped to a frigid 67 below zero. That led two mushers, Laura and Louve Twedell, to scratch early on. Unfortunately for the 19-year-old sisters, that was their last chance to qualify for the 1000-mile Yukon Quest.
While they petitioned to switch to the Yukon Quest 300 mile which could have qualified them for the 2021 Quest, their request was denied: rules are rules, said the committee.
“The last day to sign up, Jan. 3, is the deadline to sign up for a whole lot of things, it’s the last day to sign up, it’s the last day to switch races,” said Marti Steury, the executive director for the Alaska side of the Quest.
She acknowledged the bad luck for the sisters, as well as American musher Matt Failor who also petitioned to switch from the 1,000 to 300-mile race, and said that the committee was expected to take another look at the policy next year.
“We always counsel the people and recommend that you look at doing your qualifiers in a different year so that you are prepared and ready to go,” she said.
The issue generated plenty of blowback from the mushing community on social media, and that’s perhaps because the late withdrawals only further shrank an already small field. The race previously had been tied for its lowest entrants – 18 – in 36 years. As of right now, just 15 mushers are entered in this year’s race.
The small field raised questions about the size of this year’s purse, which, at $100,000 is the smallest it’s been for years, and nearly half of what it was during the 2000s.
Steury said that the state of Alaska’s economy has made it difficult for the organization to attract sponsors.
“We also had the big state budget cuts and the fear that there was gonna be a huge economic impact to the U of A here and so for a lot of different reasons it’s been very, very tight for Fairbanks and the outlying areas,” she said.
Steury said that the hits small businesses have taken around Fairbanks have made it doubly hard, as many mushers are seeking money from the same individuals and businesses. And the bottom line is that mushing is an expensive sport. The Quest, she estimates, spends about $27,000 in operating expenses on each musher who competes.
On top of that, mushers have to spend money to raise a team. Chase Tingle, who finished his rookie Quest last year, said it took five years to grow and prepare his kennel for the quest and he spent thousands along the way.
“A quick ballpark number to run a race like the quest, you’re estimating around $10,000,” he said.
Some improvements to dog care have also added to costs in recent years, as a better understanding of nutrition has compelled mushers to add pricey supplements to their dogs’ diets.
“Every time you learn something new about how to make it better for them, apply that to your own personal dogs that certainly adds to the cost, introducing new supplements and vitamins into their diet that helps out performance and wellbeing,” Tingle said.
Then there’s the price of gas for the canine engines.
“The cost of a good kibble for your dogs and the meat they need and all that keeps going up, so you gotta compensate for that,” he said
But both Steury and others say that questions about cost miss the point about dog mushing. In no world, said Steury, is dog mushing a good economic investment. It’s not why mushers like Tingle get into the sport either. He’s sacrificed a lot in the last few years, waking up early and laboring into the night, to hold down a full time job that he uses to fund his kennel, but he said it’s worth it.
“We’re all racing for sure but we’re getting out there together and making the thing happen and it’s a great celebration of the North and that’s my drive to it. That’s why I love the Yukon Quest, ’cause it’s dog mushing at its finest and purest,” he said.
Tingle said he wasn’t even aware that the purse was smaller this year than last when he decided to race. Still, money never hurts.
“If you happen to pull a little bit of prize money out if it that’s great, but I’m certainly not deciding to run this race or not on whether I can pull in a certain amount of money for a place or not,” he said.
Luckily for him, the small field comes with a silver lining: the race pays out to the top fifteen finishers. That means all he’ll have to do is finish.