Even though she's been driving dog teams for more than 40 years, the Yukon Quest was a learning experience for Juneau's Deborah Bicknell.
Bicknell, a 54-year-old Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race rookie, arrived in Takhini Hot Springs, Yukon Territory, at 4:52 p.m. Alaska Time Sunday night. At 15 days, 5 hours and 50 minutes, she took 21st place in the 1,021mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, and won the Red Lantern Award as its final finisher.
``I'm fine,'' Bicknell said by cell phone Sunday night as her husband, Sandy, drove her the 25 miles from Takhini to Whitehorse so she could catch the tail end of the mushers' banquet. ``I got a beautiful tan. It was quite nice on the Yukon. It's nice to know I can still do it.''
Bicknell, who has been running sled dogs since she was 9 growing up in New Hampshire, said there were times on the Quest where she really felt like a rookie. Her chief experience has been sprint mushing, two- or three-day races of between 10 and 25 miles a day. Before the Quest, Bicknell's longest race was about 225 miles.
``When I started out, I was only running the dogs about six hours at a time,'' Bicknell said. ``I didn't know you could run them for 14 hours like some of the leaders. You've got to feed them right and give them the same rest, but the dogs can do it. If I were to do this again, I'd have a lot better times.''
Before the race, Bicknell drew the 29th starting position, putting her in last place from the beginning.
In the first couple of days, she moved up a spot or two, but she developed some problems on the 45-mile run from Trout Creek Cabin to Eagle that dropped her back to last place for the rest of the race.
Bicknell was running along the Yukon River at night and her headlamps burned out just as she was entering a section of ``jumble ice,'' frozen river ice that's risen above the water level. While trying to make her way through, she took a wrong turn and lost the trail.
Bicknell said she knew she couldn't be too far from Eagle and knew the general direction of the checkpoint. She tried retracing her tracks, but her
dogs lost interest, a common occurrence when the musher is lost.
``After awhile, I decided I'd leave the team and try to walk into town. I practically walked to town, and then walked back, which wasn't too good on my knees,'' said Bicknell, who has a long history of knee problems that required cortisone shots before she started the race. ``As I was heading back to my team, I came over a rise and saw the postmaster riding a snowmachine down below. I was only 500 feet from the trail.''
Once she got into Eagle, Bicknell took a longer-than-normal rest to give her dogs time to get over the experience of being lost.
``I decided the dogs needed 12 whole hours of rest in Eagle,'' Bicknell said.
One of Bicknell's worries before she started the race was how she would do on its four major climbs, especially since most of her training had been on the flatter end of the trail near Whitehorse and at her training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory. She worried how the mountain passes would affect her knees, one that was injured in a race 20 years earlier and the other one injured because she kept favoring the first injury. Bicknell also worried how her dogs would feel about the mountains.
``My dogs were absolutely fantastic,'' Bicknell said. ``Going up Rosebud, they actually passed two teams. But I did have a lot of injuries on Eagle Summit, coming down from it.
``I didn't know about blocking or setting a drag. I didn't know to wrap my runners with chains and to have a drag (usually a piece of snowmachine track to stand on to slow the team down). There was once when I could see the sled was getting out of control and if that happened one of the dogs would be picked up and that would be it. I dumped the sled, and actually rode it down, and that seemed to help.''
For the most part, Bicknell said she enjoyed the Yukon Quest trail. But there was a section of about 300 miles, from Dawson City to Carmacks, where the conditions were really rough.
``It was unbelievable. I'd seen nothing like it before, not even back East where there are some horrendous trails. Seventy percent of the trail was really nice, but that 30 percent was really rough.''
Running at the back of the pack in a 1,000-mile race can be extremely stressful, especially when race officials close the checkpoints as you're leaving them. Brian O'Donoghue, the only musher to win the Red Lantern Award in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Yukon Quest, said Bicknell's starting position meant she would race alone on much of the trail. But Bicknell said it didn't really bother her.
Bicknell admits she wasn't a serious racer, and it took her awhile to stop playing tourist and to begin moving at a faster pace. Over the final few checkpoints, her times would have put her in the upper-middle of the pack.
``I had a good team, I was just enjoying myself too much at the start of the race,'' said Bicknell, who hopes to return to the race in a couple of years.
``I hadn't been to some of these places before, so I was stopping in at all these cabins, like Biederman's Cabin, I'd been hearing about for 10 to 15 years. I didn't care about finishing last. I just wanted to finish.''