Before the onslaught of excited fans descended upon Wednesday night’s Meet the Mushers event in Fairbanks we sat down with the 2018 Yukon Quest freshman class to get some further insight into their preparation, anticipation, and expectations for their rookie run.
Anchorage pediatric dentist Christine Roalofs attempted the Quest once before in 2011 but by Dawson had withdrawn due to what she describes as “that classic rookie mistake of not packing enough food for the long 200-mile run, and being a little undertrained.”
Since then she has completed an Iditarod and a slew of 300-mile races, all with another crack at the Quest fixed in her mind. She’ll even have a dog on her team from that 2011 attempt: 8 ½ year old Rogue will run lead as she and Christine try to settle the score.
Asked about advice she has received that she’ll carry with her on the trail, Roalofs says, “Laugh, laugh, laugh. When you’re down, laugh, giggle, tell jokes, listen to comedy on your iPod, whatever. Just don’t be sad, because then the dogs feel the sad.” Helping her keep a smile on her face—and hopefully some good luck on her side— will be a Flat Stanley paper doll given to her by her nieces in Kentucky that they have instructed her to take a photo with at each checkpoint.
Jennifer Campeau of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta and her team of 2-year olds, meanwhile, are here for the experience. Campeau plans to run a relaxed schedule, enjoy the scenery and solitude, the nights camped out, and finish with a healthy and happy team. She’ll also be breaking in a brand new sled. Advice she’ll keep in mind for the race is not to worry about what everyone else is doing and just run her own race.
Twenty-one-year old Kaktovik, AK musher Vebjorn Aishana Reitan will surely be a newcomer to watch. Reitan has been around the sport of dog mushing his entire life: his father is well-respected veteran distance musher Ketil Reitan, and Vebjorn has handled for both him and fellow Quest competitor Torsten Kohnert. Battle-tested is a word that comes to mind when describing this youngster: in addition to fielding a team of dogs who have run for both his father and Kohnert in recent Quests and Iditarods, Reitan cold weather tested both himself and his apparel serving with the Norwegian Army.
Best advice he’s received? “Don’t give up. Everyone’s having just as hard a time as I am.”
In the same vein as Jennifer Campeau, Severin Cathry of Switzerland and Claudia Wickert of Whitehorse will be employing a conservative strategy with their dogs. Both are fielding young teams and plan to take the Quest run by run, checkpoint to checkpoint, reassessing their state of mind as well as that of their teams’ on a continual basis, adapting their race plans as needed, with the main goal simply to finish and have the experience and adventure under their belts. Both are also a little unsure of having affixed a seat to their sleds for the first time, though they do acknowledge its necessity for the long miles they’ll put on, on the Quest trail.
Exuding confidence is 29-year old Fairbanks musher Alex Buetow, and it isn’t hard to see why: in addition to finishing the Iditarod in 2014, and to his dad Eric being a Quest finisher, Alex handles for mushing luminary Jeff King and has an entire team of King dogs on his line, all with one or more 1,000-mile races to their name. An odds-on favourite if the Quest ever awards for congeniality, Buetow attributes the best Quest advice he’s received to veteran Paige Drobny, who told him that unlike other races there are no “easy parts” during which you can safely grab some on-sled shut-eye.
Having handled for both Matt Hall and Ryne Olson on successful Quest runs, Riley Dyche is another young musher out of Fairbanks with more Quest trail wisdom than your average first-timer. Dyche says he has had the Quest on his radar since first coming to Alaska, slowly building up his small kennel—and his own sled—ever since. The 26-year old says his strategy through the first half of the race will be short, fast runs and short rests, and he’s looking for a big performance from his leader Yam, a littermate to last year ‘s Golden Harness winner from Matt Hall’s team, Anchor. “I’ve been telling Matt since she was a puppy that she’s going to win a Golden Harness,” laughs Dyche.
A 2016 Iditarod finisher, Willow, AK’s Tim Pappas plans to run a fairly moderate race with his young team, bonding with them, gaining trail experience, and crossing the finish line healthy and happy. Pappas says he is most looking forward to testing the mettle of his big leader, Superfly. “He’s the man,” says Pappas. “Mentally he’s very tough.”
Nathaniel Hamlyn is another young musher with a promising future. The third-place finisher in last year’s YQ300 race, Hamlyn had to get resourceful with his training this year, working around a full academic schedule and less-than-ideal trail conditions. Hamlyn says he will be following a race plan designed for him by friend and mentor Marcel Morin which gives him the option in Dawson to choose between a competitive and a more recreational strategy for the last half of the race, depending on how he’s feeling about he and his team’s ability at that point.
Hailing from the small community of Aniak, AK (population 550) on the shores of the Kuskokwim River, Ike Underwood has been mushing dogs for 20 years and has a home-built sled made of hockey sticks. “It’s made of composite sticks. I bought them online. They’re really easy to cut up. And they’re strong and lightweight. They work pretty good,” explains Underwood. Having done his training on the mostly flat ground around Aniak, Underwood says he’s a bit nervous to tackle the Quest’s daunting summits, but takes some comfort in the fact that he has six dogs he can put in lead, and will heed his father’s advice to “just stay moving.”
Finally we have German musher Bernhard Schuchert. With over 35 years experience in the sport and a record-holder for finishing 14 Finnmarksløpets, Schuchert is hardly a rookie in the traditional sense. Schuchert is confident the new sled and longer training miles he got in with his experienced team early in the season will serve him well on trail, and says his good luck charm for the race will be the snow under his runners.
Top (L-R): Christine Roalofs, Jennifer Campeau, Vebjorn Aishana Reitan, Severin Cathry, Claudia Wickert, Alex Buetow. Bottom (L-R): Riley Dyche, Tim Pappas, Nathaniel Hamlyn, Ike Underwood, Bernhard Schuchert.