Deborah Bicknell, a 56-year-old grandmother from Juneau, expects to improve her time significantly in the 2002 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race compared to her 21st place-finish in the event in 2000.
Her success will depend in part on her new artificial knee and a dog that almost died of a nasal condition three months ago.
Bicknell expressed confidence this week as she packed her truck for the drive from her training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks for Saturday morning's start.
In the 2000 Yukon Quest, Bicknell won the Red Lantern Award given to the last finisher in the 1,000-mile-plus race. She covered the course from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in 15 days, 4 hours, 54 minutes, in 2000.
"I'm going to cut at least two days off my time," Bicknell said Monday by phone from Tagish. "As long as there are no storms, I know I can cut that much off my time. I know I'm a better dog driver than I showed two years ago. I'm hoping for a few good mushers around me, because that will help my team."
When she ran the Yukon Quest as a rookie two years ago, Bicknell drew the last starting position. A couple of wrong turns early in the race meant she never really moved out of that last-place position.
At Thursday night's pre-race banquet in Fairbanks, Bicknell drew the 14th starting position out of 41 mushers, meaning she should have strong teams nearby. Mushers will leave in two-minute intervals starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, with Wasilla rookie Kelley Griffin leading the way. Former Yukon Quest champions Dave Monson (1988), Tim Osmar (2001) and Rick Mackey (1997) are scheduled to leave in the 17-18-19 spots, while the other former champion in the field, Frank Turner (1995), will leave 34th. Turner is the only musher to race in every Yukon Quest.
The mushers are hoping to win the $30,000 first prize. The field is considered one of the strongest in Quest history. Besides the four former Quest champions, Mackey is a former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion (1983). Several former top-10 Quest and top-20 Iditarod finishers also are in the race, along with 14 rookies. During the banquet, each musher received a $100 gift certificate in memory of Jerry Louden, who was entered in this year's race before he was killed in a car wreck near Fairbanks this summer.
Bicknell was given an artificial knee last year, and she said this year's weather worries her a bit about rough trail conditions. She bought a pair of carpenter's knee pads, in case she falls in some of the rougher spots of the trail.
"It sounds really bad," Bicknell said. "I heard the first 100 miles are jumble ice and it's pretty rough. Right now there's ice, but many of the rivers are not in good shape."
The mushers have been training all year, and finally getting on the trail will seem like a vacation to some of them after all their preparations for the race. Over the last couple of weeks the mushers had to get all of their drop bags checked in so two weeks worth of supplies for each musher could be distributed to checkpoints along the trail. They also had to take their dogs to either Fairbanks or Whitehorse for veterinarian checks last week.
Bicknell said her checkpoint drop bags include a variety of food for her dogs, everything from dry food to pork fat, fish, beef, horse meat, wheat germ and "high-class vitamins." She said her dogs, who average 45-50 pounds each, will consume 10,000 calories a day during the race. The average 150-pound human can maintain his or her weight on a diet of 1,500-1,800 calories a day.
For herself, Bicknell said she packed powdered vitamin supplement shakes, a camper stove with packs of teas and ciders, a selection of veggie pizzas and she cooked a big lasagna and sent slices to each checkpoint. She'll keep a big jar of candy in her sled, and there are two or three checkpoints where mushers are served steaks.
Mushers are allowed to start the race with 14 dogs, and they must finish the race with six dogs in harness. Bicknell said she planned to take 15 dogs with her from her training camp to Fairbanks, so she had a back-up dog in case one of her females goes into heat or a couple with small injuries don't look suited to run the race.
During her vet checks in Whitehorse, Bicknell received some good news. Her main leader, Rocky, was approved for the race. Rocky was Bicknell's main leader two years ago, and a big part of her training plans for this year's race. But Rocky was suffering from a nasal condition since May that wasn't clearing up. Bicknell's vet, Dr. Elizabeth Wolf, finally suggested sending Rocky to Pullman, Wash., where it was discovered his nasal condition was caused by a fungus that had eaten a large hole in the upper part of Rocky's nasal passages. Rocky almost died over Thanksgiving, but since then he has responded to treatment and seems to be running well.
"Rocky will make the trip, but he probably won't make the whole trip," Bicknell said. "I did a training run along the Canol Road (near Ross River), and he did the whole 100 miles and looked like he was ready for more. It's been a month-and-a-half, so I think he's ready."
Having Rocky in the team will give Bicknell some leadership for her younger dogs. When she ran the race two years ago, she had several dogs in the 7- to 11-year-old range.
"Most of my team is 2 1/2 years old, they're still kids," Bicknell said. "We're looking good for next year. They're strong, they're willing and they're good eaters. I'm not going to be last again, that's for sure. My goal is to not be pushy or to show a lack of confidence in my dogs."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.