As far back as the late 1970’s, the founders of the Yukon Quest fostered a vision for a long-distance sled dog race that would accomplish several important goals, not the least of which included the creation of an international spectacle that would relive the historic trails of the Klondike gold rush, some of which had not been used in decades.
The story of the short-lived “Rush of ’98” is well known. What is not as well known is that for three decades before this, gold seekers had been slowly working their way from both the south and the north towards the Klondike mother lode centred at Dawson City. During this period, the trails, both the overland and water routes, were opened up; and communities like Circle City, Eagle, Forty Mile, Fort Selkirk, Fort Cudahy, Fort Constantine and Stewart City were established along what would later be known as the trail of the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog Race.
Short of travel by snowshoe, sled dogs were the only way to overcome the isolation of the Klondike in the early years following the gold rush. When Klondike Mike Mahoney, one of the most famous early gold rush dog freighters, mushed his dogs “outside” from Dawson to Skagway return in 1896, it took about a month. He followed what was essentially the original, but certainly not the shortest, route along the Yukon River system.
Mike Mahoney also travelled north from Dawson City all the way to Fairbanks, as did other dog freighters like Arthur Walden; ministers like Hudson Stuck; mail carriers like Charlie Biederman, Percy de Wolfe, and Ben Downing; news reporters like Tappen Adney; and traders like Jack McQuestern. In the process they firmly established the winter transportation routes between Dawson City, Forty Mile, Eagle, Circle, Central and Chatanika, the communities along the present day Quest trail that travels over both Eagle and Twelve Mile summits.
In summer months, the river stern-wheeler dominated transportation between the Klondike and the “outside,” and it was only to be expected that there would also be a loud call for an improved winter transportation route. In 1902, the Yukon government contracted the White Pass and Yukon Route to build the first winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson, known as the Overland Trail. There was weekly and at times daily travel over this route using horses and sleighs, and, beginning in 1929, sleighs pulled by caterpillar tractors. Today’s Quest trail follows these same routes and some of the well-known and almost mystical landmarks that date back to this era, including Yukon Crossing, Stepping Stone and Maisy Mae.
In both the Yukon and Alaska, the routing of original trails has been influenced by the construction of highways, and the ongoing expansion of gold mining has also led to the construction of many new access roads. The emerging use of the airplane beginning in the late 1920’s significantly changed the need for overland winter travel in the north. Today those original trails remain embedded in the northern landscape, and while no longer used for regular mail delivery or mainstream travel, the trails continue to be celebrated by the Yukon Quest.