Juneau musher Deborah Bicknell had her shakedown cruise in the 2000 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, when she won the Red Lantern Award as the last finisher in the 1,000-mile-plus race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
After a year off to train and repair her damaged knees, Bicknell is ready for another shot at the race. Bicknell registered for the 2002 race last week, and thinks she can drop a significant chunk of time when the event starts on Feb. 9. It took Bicknell 15 days, 4 hours, 54 minutes to complete the course, which is the third-fastest Red Lantern time but was still off the winning time of 10:22:01 by Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers.
"I know I can cut 3 1/2 days off my time," Bicknell said in an interview last week at her dog lot near the Mendenhall Golf Course. "If I just change the way I do some things when I feed the team and camp, and if I don't get lost again, I can do reasonably well if not better than I did last year. I think I can come in the top 10."
Bicknell will be nearly 57 when the 2002 Yukon Quest starts. She started as a sprint musher in 1957 in New Hampshire, and even though she'd been a World Sprint Mushing champion the 2000 Quest was her first major distance race. When she ran the race last year, she was battling chronic bad knees from a mushing accident when she was younger. After the race she had reconstructive surgery on both knees, with her left knee being completely replaced and her right knee rebuilt around a damaged knee cap.
"They said it was going to take about a year-and-a-half before my knees are at full strength, and that's about what it will be when the race starts," said Bicknell, who will wear knee braces during the race to keep from hyperextending the joints. "I lost the cartilage when I was sprint racing at 17. I guess it's part of the price of being an athlete. I used the year off for training more dogs."
When Bicknell entered last year's Yukon Quest she only had 13 adult dogs in her kennel and the race allows mushers to put 14 dogs in their teams. She had four dogs battling minor injuries at the start of the race, which left her a little low in dog power as she nursed them along in the early portion of the race.
This time Bicknell will have 21 adult dogs to pick from, so she can leave the injured dogs home, plus she'll have several race veterans in the group. Bicknell also has several 2 1/2-year-olds ready for their first Quest, and she thinks some of them will be better than the dogs she had last year. Bicknell said the young dogs are working well with her main leader, Rocky, who she said helped get her through the course.
"I could not have done that race without that dog, Rocky," Bicknell said. "He just knew what needed to be done."
Bicknell said one way Rocky saved the day was when mushers were detoured around an open crack on the Yukon River near Circle. There was a sharp turn near the open lead and when the team made its first pass, the turn was too tight and her sled got dumped in the water. Bicknell was able to get the sled loose, and on her second pass around the crack Rocky instinctively took the team into the nearby woods to get a better line so the sled wasn't dumped again.
When she ran the race last year, Bicknell drew the last starting position and other than a few times early in the race never moved out of the last-place position. She said she fell further behind after a wrong turn before Eagle, that cost her about 16-18 hours of backtracking while she looked for the right trail amongst the jumble ice on the Yukon River. But once she found the trail and got a good night's sleep in Eagle, Bicknell said she was able to run at the same pace as the other mushers for the rest of the race. She said being alone at the back of the pack didn't bother her.
"I know I can survive the race now," Bicknell said. "After I got lost, I just took each day as it was. I think subconsciously I was scared early in the race. I had fun running the Quest, except for that last part by the roads (coming into Whitehorse). I didn't want to come home. I did a lot of thinking out on the trail."
Bicknell, who owns a boat canvas repair business in Juneau, said a lot of her thoughts on the trail were about what she needed to improve for her second run. Her husband, Sandy, is building her a new sled and she will design a sled bag that will allow her to sleep in the sled without unpacking her gear. She also has a friend, Judy Hall, who is designing a Web site for Bicknell's Temakwa Kennels, which Bicknell hopes will help her gain sponsors.
Bicknell also plans to head to Anchorage next week for her brother's wedding, and while she's there she plans to head north to visit the kennel of five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson in Two Rivers. Bicknell said Swenson is good friends with her parents, Dick and Cindy Molburg, and Swenson is a frequent contributor of training tips to the Team and Trail newsletter run by Bicknell's mother. She said she plans to learn what she can from Swenson, then apply the knowledge in September when she takes her team to her winter training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.