Ice jumble on Yukon River will slow Yukon Quest

Juneau musher to sit race out this year

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2001

EAGLE -- From the air, the surface of the Yukon River resembles the pockmarked, deeply scarred face of an unfortunate teen.

On the ground, a less whimsical description seems more appropriate.

Ice slabs the size of compact cars jut violently skyward, and along with thousands of smaller ice chunks, create a labyrinth of light and shadow across the surface.

Where the wind has forced a dry layer of fresh snow in the cracks, the surface of this northern causeway looks something like an arctic moon.

Mushers, welcome to the trail of the 2001 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

The 1,000-mile trek from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks along the Yukon River gets under way Feb. 11, and race officials say the trail is in historically poor shape this year.

"I see this as the most challenging trail since 1984 (the inaugural year)," race manager Leo Olesen said this week.

"The information I have ... is all the way from Dawson City to Circle is jumbled ice," Olesen said. "Our trail routinely runs on about 210 miles of that, so we're looking at 210 miles of extremely rough ice to put the trail on.

"They had a lot of rain in the fall so the river was running high at freeze-up," Olesen said. "It got cold and started to freeze but it didn't get cold enough to freeze up all at once and that process went on for nearly two months. It's just an ice jam now."

Last year, Juneau musher Deborah Bicknell was a rookie in the Yukon Quest and she won the Red Lantern Award given to the race's last finisher. Earlier this week, before she headed to her training camp near Tagish, Yukon Territory, she planned to skip the Quest this year in favor of some smaller races in the area. She said she plans to run the Quest again in 2002.

Around Eagle, everyone has a theory as to which route would make the safest, most manageable run between Dawson City and Circle.

Musher Andy Bassich advocated running on the Taylor Highway to the Denison Fork of the Fortymile River. Mushers could turn south and head for the Tanana River, which could be followed all the way to Fairbanks.

Others had different theories, but just about no one suggested sticking with the existing route down the Yukon.

But according to Olesen, Quest officials aren't considering rerouting the race. Olesen is coordinating volunteers and logistics to get trail-breaking crews out on the river with ice picks, axes and chain saws to make the worst spots passable. A similar crew is being organized out of Circle.

Sled reinforcements -- plywood to be strapped to the sides of sleds for protection against ragged chunks of ice -- will likely be available in Dawson City, Olesen said. Mushers will just have to take it slow.

"I doubt very much if any records will be set this year," Olesen said.

Near Eagle, a 6- to 10-foot wide swath along the west bank of the Yukon provides slow but passable travel by snowmachine. In broad daylight, most obstacles are visible, if not easily negotiable.

But in the half-light of dusk or during the 14 hours of darkness in which mushers will have to travel, the river could be the undoing of an anxious rookie.

"The mushers are concerned," Olesen said. "They know the Quest trail is a tough trail."

The jumble ice on the Yukon isn't the only trail concern. Unless Whitehorse gets locked in a deep freeze during the next month, the start downtown along the banks of the Yukon also will have to be rerouted.

"The river's wide open in Whitehorse," Olesen said. Organizers are discussing rerouting the start or moving it to Takhini Hot Springs about 25 miles out of Whitehorse.

"It's going to be a slow trail," Olesen said.

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