We’re off to Alaska, to be support crew for the Yukon Quest sled-dog race. Mushers, Curt and Fleur Perano are kiwis who live half the year in Roxburgh, NZ and half the year in Willow, Alaska, allowing them to live their dream of running Husky and Malamute sled dogs.
The race is 1000 miles (1600km) and takes around 10 days! Start is Feb 1st 2014. This start date puts the mushers and dogs out in the Alaskan wilderness at the height of winter, (sometimes -40 degrees). BRRrrr!!
We’ve had an interesting time researching the conditions, and the clothing and equipment we’ll need. It’ll be even more interesting getting up to speed once in Alaska, with getting to know the dogs, learning from Curt and Fleur, and of course exploring winter-time Alaska.
Join us on our blog as we share our stories and pics.
Steve, Jackie, and Pam.
Thanks to our sponsors:
JAN 13TH - OFF ON ANOTHER ADVENTURE
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
The excitement doesn’t start for me until I feel the push-back into the seat on take-off. There’s no turning back from here! Whoopee, off on another adventure. Whilst this is an adventure, for me I’m motivated to make something more of this… I want to come back with some great stories to tell to my conference audiences, plus I want to study team-work. If ever there’s a time you need a great team, this is it! …Not only in a quest to perform well in the race, but also survival when the weather gets extreme. En route, we’re stopping off for 5 days to experience Vancouver (Air NZ flies direct; Akl to YVR)
JAN 15TH - ALPINE SKIING AT WHISTLER/BLACKCOMB
Updated: Mar 24
Can’t go to British Colombia, Canada without doing some skiing! With a sparse season of snow so far, I opted for alpine skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb. (instead of cross-country)
With a massive number of lifts stretching right up 2 massive mountains, I was able to get high to some really nice snow, and some breathtaking views.
I was totally blown-away with the enormity of the place.. something like 250 runs! What a blast skiing amongst the trees! Met a few kiwis, some holidaying, some working there - but nothing prepared me for the number of Aussies working on the mountain!! Apparently 3000 Aussies employed at the ski field this season!
I’d like to go back there, it would take about a week just to do each run once.
Jan 17th - This is the adventure for me - Pam Adams
Vancouver now behind us, the excitement of the weeks ahead beckons!
This is the beginning of the real purpose of our trip, and I am looking ahead with a certain amount of trepidation – strange country, unfamiliar sport, and living in VERY close quarters with people we barely know, living in each others shadows. No doubt there will be challenges ahead, and in fact we have no idea from which quarter they will appear…
This is the adventure for me……
Jan 17th - Flying Vancouver to Anchorage - Jackie Clarke
Vancouver is a very beautiful city. Highlight for me was the Capilano Suspension Bridge, great fun. We had the luck of a Bald Eagle flying past and a cheeky Squirrel posing for the camera.
I love how dog friendly the city is, Boston Terriers everywhere!!
The anticipation of the great Alaskan Husky’s, soon to be our closest friends, is taking over!!!
I’m eager Alaska! Here we come…..
Jan 18th - An entire landscape clad in snow - Steve Gurney
My first thought as the plane dropped through the cloud for landing, revealing the snow-clad city of Anchorage was “Damn, I don’t think I brought enough warm clothing!” The entire landscape was clad in snow.
Jan 19th - Curt & Fleur in Anchorage - Steve Gurney
Jan 19th Curt and Fleur picked us up in Anchorage in the big red Chevy dog truck.
It was awesome to see Curt and Fleur again! (And wee Wyatt, their 14 month son). Connecting again with their purpose and energy. Finally we’re on the countdown to the race. Only 11 more days for preparation.
Beginning to realise just how truly passionate these guys are about their dogs. The welfare of their dogs often seems more important to them than their own…. Just to give you an idea of their dedication:
In their last 3 moves over the years, as they’ve accumulated more dogs they’ve chosen to leave behind furniture, a couch, a fridge, a washing machine to make room for the new pups and dogs. Truly dedicated!
Arriving home Curt and Fleur introduced us to the dogs, all 29 of them. Some are shy, but most are keen and eager to meet us.
An important strategy of Curt and Fleur is to treat the dogs as mates, to treat them as family, (and they really do!) Even picking up poo was fun.
It’s immediately noticeable to me, the respect and close bond between Curt, Fleur and every dog. I’m sure this is one of the reasons they get such good performance from the dogs… and this is the area I’m REALLY keen to explore on this trip.
Jan 20th - Rain in Anchorage & Willow - Steve Gurney
The weather forecast is not good for the next few days, more rain is due.
It’s rained in Anchorage and Willow, making the trails icy, hard and treacherous, not good for sledding training, but more importantly, it’s not good for race preparation.
We’re going to help Curt and Fleur pack the drop-bags for the Iditarod race. It needs to be below zero so that the dog food stays frozen in transit.
Jan 20th - Jax
I couldn’t sleep properly last night as excitement and reality took over! We’re here!!!
We’ve meet the team and now we need to learn as much as we can without getting in the way. Curt went out for a run this morning as we watched his set up in anticipation. The dogs are nothing short of amazing. So willing and eager to GO!!
Jan 21st - On the sleds - Steve
Awesome day... we got out on the sleds with the dogs. Not only did we get to ride in the sled, but Jax and I got to mush! (with Curt and Fleur riding along for guidance of course).
Often we had the 2 dog teams running alongside each other, giving me a real sense of the genuine enjoyment these dogs have for sledding.
Jan 21st - Mushing - Jax
My word what a day!!!! The best day yet!!!
I think my face muscles will be sore tomorrow from smiling today in excitement. We learned, and had a go at running the dogs. Brilliant fun!!
Steve and I sat in the sled until Curt and Fleur got us to safe place so we could have a go!!! It’s such an amazing feeling!!!
Jan 21 - Holding down the fort - Pam Adams
Quieter day for me today while the 2 teams were out for a run.
Wyatt (15mths) and I held the fort and enjoyed some one on one time together – such a cool little kid who is happy in his own company and very laid back!
Really enjoyed watching the others organise the two teams and cruise on out of the yard. Hoping to catch some sled time tomorrow……
Jan 22nd - Race preparation - Steve Gurney
Rain overnight has frozen to ice… it’s too dangerous for training. We spent the day doing some race preparation.
Curt, Fleur and Block (one of the leader dogs) coach us through some of the preparations for the race and transitions and equipment.
It was interesting to learn the specific nuances and personalisation that show the obvious care that Curt and Fleur have for their team.
Jan 23rd - Organizing bags - Pam Adams
Another big day, but a very productive one. A huge amount of time taken to organise the bags – between 4 and 6 people working constantly for almost 12 hours and the bags are only partially completed! We still have some of the dry food and Curt’s gear to add… I am full of admiration for the effort Curt and Fleur put into their dogs and races. Often they have done all of the work on their own, and in cramped spaces and/or in less than ideal weather. It was obvious from the conversations with the renowned Mackay family, that others also admire the dedication of the Kiwi team. Was lovely to meet and talk to people who have competed in sled dog racing since the first Iditarod in 1973. Tomorrow we will be packed with the same planning, learning, work and practise….. Also hoping for colder weather!!
Jan 23rd - Vacuum packed Alaskan Salmon - Jackie Clarke
Organisation day today. Its too wet to run the dogs, the trails have turned to slush, so the plan is to sort the race “Drop Bags” (Check point bags of necessaries).
Curt and Fluer managed to get their hands on restaurant quality Salmon fillets all vacuum packed and frozen. An order had been cancelled allowing Curt and Fluer to buy the fish super cheap!!! Steve’s mouth was drooling while we unpacked the vacuum-sealed fillets, counted out 30 bags of 20 fillets and re-packed them into sacks for the race. These dogs get feed better than I do!!!! Awesome!! My highlight today were 6 weeks old Alaskan Husky Puppies!!!! So very, very cute!!!
I then looked after Wyatt for the afternoon/night while the others sorted more bags out. Man he is a cute kid!!! So easy to look after.
Late night – dinner at midnight and bed by 12.30 am.
Jan 23rd - Warm Alaskan rain
Showers have turned to solid rain and the temperature has risen to a toastie 9 degrees. We head out to Lance MacKay’s mum’s (Cathy) shed in the nearby town of Wasilla to use her Meat saw and chiller to prepare our race checkpoint drop –bags. (Lance is the legend of sled-dog racing).
But more importantly, her shed provided welcome respite from the persistent rain. Talk is rampant around town about the unseasonal warm weather, equalling the record from 1973.
Snowmobiles, falling through the snow into the Yetna river. The locals are pretty grumpy and the quote of the day has to be: ”Alaska’s the only place in the world when folks get grumpy when it gets too warm”!
Jan 24th - Sun and more melting snow
The rain stopped, the sun came out, and we dodged huge puddles of melting snow. To be honest, it’s a bit depressing. The talk around town is nothing but the weather, and whether the weather will get cold in time for the race.
The Northern Lights 300 mile race scheduled for this weekend has been cancelled, and we’re hoping like crazy that the Yukon Quest will still go ahead.
Curt and Fleur have to make the 13 hour return trip to Fairbanks tomorrow for a vet-check on 16 dogs.
25th Jan – The dog truck’s falling apart!!!
The running step fell off the truck today. Checked underneath to see why and to my horror, found some pretty serious rust!
In the icy winter, many USA counties sprinkle salt on the road to melt the snow and improve grip. This results in some accelerated ageing of many vehicles.
The poor old Chevy dog truck is only year 2000, but is pretty knackered. I’m a bit worried about its reliability for the Yukon Quest.
The running step used to be held on by two of six bolts that hold the cab onto the chassis. Now two of those bolts are rusted out and there are some very rough roads to cover…
It’s going in for a service later in the week! I spent the afternoon sorting out some of the minor issues, blown fuses, broken lights etc.
26th Jan - Mt McKinley
Saw a cool quote: “Many towns are mountain towns with a drinking problem, but Talkeetna is a drinking town with a mountain problem”
Monday 27th Jan – Truck’s still not reliable!
The truck went in for servicing and a check-up. They found the water pump was on its way out so replaced that, (phew!)
But they couldn’t replace the rusted bolts so did a weld patch-up.
Still worried, so I’ve put together a big tool kit.
Jan 28th - In dog they trust
From my observations, none of the mushers have good trucks. They’re all pretty munted from the hard road conditions. So it’s a marvellous thing that first prize for the Iditarod every year is a new truck!
While this prize is right in line with what mushers need, most seem to race purely for the love of the lifestyle; the outdoors and the companionship of their dogs. Curt and Fleur fit this description exactly; so very passionate about their dogs. They treat the dogs like they are family... and they are!
29th Jan – The drive to “base-camp” Fairbanks
The big drive to Fairbanks today. Six of us crammed into the cab of the dog truck; and 14 dogs safely in the back!
Heading out the door in the darkness, we were treated to a brief view of Mt McKinley in the sunrise.
Mount McKinley, also called Denali, highest peak in North America.
Its official elevation figure of 20,320 feet (6,194 metres)
30th Jan – The Northern Lights
The opening banquet and briefing today. Severe lack of snow, and a few rivers are too open, so they’ve made a few course alterations. It’s still really cold here, but that means the trails will be really hard and icy. This makes for higher speeds, but the hardness also raises the risk of injuries for the dogs with more impact on foot strike. Normally there is more snow which is softer. Also increased risk for sled and musher damage with block ice.
We saw the northern lights! Heading out of town to get away from light pollution, we were rewarded around midnight. Sweet!
Jan 31st – Dogs are full of energy
Race day tomorrow and we're now on the countdown for finalising the last details. All the dogs were hand led for a quick run tonight and they are fighting fit! Unbelievably strong and keen to run, it was difficult to keep them under control.
The race will no longer be started on the frozen river as usual due to the “mild” weather. Instead snow is trucked into downtown Fairbanks to create a short artificial trail, and the teams will start on the streets.
We have been surprised by the level of interest and support from strangers, and it all adds to the intensity and excitement.
Hoping for a decent nights sleep in what may well be our last comfortable bed for many days…!
Saturday 1st Feb - The race finally starts
Curt started with 14 dogs: Hatchett, Run, Block, Ramp, Bolt, Trip, Mary-Lou, Gaiter, Hitch, Croc, Taser, Dodge, Kick, & Scenic.
It was so very cool to see the dogs so happy and eager to get under way.
We drove out to the 1st checkpoint at Two Rivers to wait for the mushers and dogs, and to learn how the system works for us as handlers. The National Guard (military) had set the Checkpoint up with some impressively big double skinned insulated tents, heaters and spotlights.
Sunday 2nd Feb – It’s cold!
Arrived Checkpoint 2, Mile 101 at 2:00 am. Pam & I naively thought we’d sleep in the tent - we froze, whist Jackie opted for the most uncomfortable night she’s ever had, jammed in the cab of the truck, baby-sitting young Wyatt.
Teams work Teamwork is very important here. We’re out in the whop-whops, the temperature drops to an unforgiving minus 20-30° Celsius. This close to the Arctic Circle, a simple mistake in the outback can easily cost your life.
The top 10 mushers are very competitive. Mix this with the incredibly harsh environment and the incentive to build a champion team is very high.
Curt and the dogs are running in 8th place, and as the teams come into the check points (CPs) it’s easy to see the dedication the dogs have to their musher, and the genuine concern the musher has for their dogs.
Curt has had to drop two dogs from the running team: Kick and Dodge. They’re both stiff and sore. Dodge has a sore shoulder, and Kick is showing the first signs of myopathy (an unhealthy accumulation of lactic acid). Curt is clearly saddened that two of his adventure mates won’t get to finish the race with him.
Monday 3rd Feb – The LONG drive to the Yukon Territory
Most teams stop for a few hours of rest at the CP’s. Curt (and other mushers) take time to bed the dogs down on some hay, take their booties off, check them for signs of injury or soreness, and feed them; before he takes off for a snooze.
I’m impressed and amazed at the obvious keen-ness of the dogs as they head out of the CP and onto the trail again. Those dogs just LOVE to race!
Circle, AK is the end of the road for crew, it’s truly the whop-whops! We’re now faced with a couple of days of driving to get around to the Yukon Territory, Dawson City (via Fairbanks and Whitehorse)
Before the drive, I whack on some lycra tights and a big thick Macpac jacket and head out for a run in the snow. I got some side-ways looks! I guess it ‘cos the usual way to get around here is by massive V8 ute or snow mobile!
Tuesday 4th – Santa’s place, North Pole
Believe it or not, … only in America!
North Pole, Alaska
We stayed the night in a town called North Pole, Alaska, in a hotel on Santa Claus road, which had another street off it called Saint Nicolas Place.
There are streets named after the reindeer. And yes, you guessed it, there’s a building called Santa’s house… it’s a store that sells christmas merchandise. Yes, all the trees in the streets have fairy lights in them.
22 hrs driving with a wee 15 month old boy in his baby seat! Credit to wee Wyatt he was easy to entertain (and only 4 nappy changes!)
We newbies were excitedly hoping for a decent moose sighting, but had to be content with only one brief back-side view of a rapidly retreating beast and four in the distance. On the positive, we had a close up view (with photos to prove it) of seven Caribou (wild reindeer), one coyote slinking along the highway and two snow-white bunny rabbits.
Wed 5th - Dawson City
We arrived in the wee small hours of 3:00 am.
Dawson city, Yukon is a lot like Arrowtown. It’s an historic old gold-mining town, and you half expect a cowboy to roll out of a saloon with a Winchester rifle. Town planners have obviously outlawed any franchise business. You’ll only find the general store, the trading post, and the Sluice bar.
We set the campsite with a tent for the dogs and my Macpac Minaret for the handler. It’s a compulsory 36 hour lay-over.
Thurs 6th - Courage is….
Curt arrives, and finally we are allowed to help out with hands-on the dogs and sled. But not before some great stories from the trail:
Curt and his dog team had fallen through overflow ice previously. (Overflow ice occurs when the water beneath frozen ice breaks through the ice surface and forms an ice covered flow ABOVE the main river ice. It is very difficult to distinguish from normal river ice.)
He had spent 30 to 45 minutes retrieving himself, the team and his sodden gear from the freezing water before seeking shelter in a nearby cabin, lighting a fire and drying himself and the dogs off before continuing along the trail.
Later he came upon an area of open water, which he needed to traverse to join the trail. Understandably the lead dog “Run” was reluctant to repeat the cold swim! Next in the gang line behind “Run” was “Block”, one of the veterans of Curt and Fleur’s team, and the leader in many previous long distance races.
Curt tells the story of Block suddenly realising what was being asked of the team, and lunging sideways into the river of water, dragging the others in the direction Curt needed them to run, and uniting the strength of all the dogs to secure them safely on the other side.
Friday 7th - It’s so very cold! - Jackie Clarke
Alaska/Yukon is magic. I am loving every second of this trip. Curt and Fleur’s dogs are to die for. If I could smuggle one in, I would. We are just over half way through the race, and boy its tough!!!
Just checked the official weather forecasts for the week, the warmest it will get is minus 24 degrees Celsius, and tonight it’s going down to minus 38 degrees Celcius.
Steve spent the day overhauling the sled. It’s actually in great condition, with no real damage. The runners are nearly worn through, and Curt tells me about the rocky rough section up the Yukon river that wore them so badly. We’ll replace them.
Saturday 8th – The race really begins
Curt’s off after the mandatory 36 hrs rest.
He’s got 9 dogs left in the team, a total of 5 have been dropped as a precaution (with recovery for the upcoming Iditarod race in mind.)
Hatchett, Scenic, Block, Kick, Dodge are now travelling in the truck with us, resting and recovering.
Now starting again at the halfway mark the race now truly begins. The team is “bedded in”.
Feb 9th – Photo shoot
We had a lot of fun today taking promo shots for our sponsors.
The talent being two of Curt and Fleur's most photogenic dogs, and of course the very beautiful Jackie and Pam, and me, the thorn between the two roses.
At a cosy minus 38 degrees Celsius, Pam was not having a bar of any underwear shots, but plucky Jackie got down to her long-johns and thin top!
I, being ever-competitive, had to go one better and ran down the frozen Yukon river in nothing but snow-shoes and bright orange undies.
I got my come-upance when I face-planted, much to the bemusement of the dogs and some local on-lookers!
Bad news! Brent Sass has activated his SPOT rescue beacon.
Rumour is that he has fallen off and hit his head. Brent and Allan Moore were cat-n-mouse for the lead over the last 2 days, and they were less than a day from the finish of the race, so this is dramatic news!! (secretly we were hoping Brent would win, as Allan won last year, it’s Brent’s turn and he’s a friendly, approachable and intelligent guy).
Good to hear he’s alive and stable, but he’s been airlifted to hospital. Here’s a news paper report of what happened:
Just 12 miles from Braeburn -- the final checkpoint before the finish about 85 miles farther -- Sass "nodded off" and fell backward, hitting his head on the lake ice he was crossing. He soon realized he was "clearly not all there" and had symptoms of a concussion.
After getting up and straightening his team, Sass drove the dogs to a warmer spot off the lake and cooked food for them. During this time, it was difficult to think clearly, Sass said in his Facebook post.
His preparations to start running the dogs again were slow, and his confidence lagged once they were moving.
"I was worried I could get them hurt by keeping going, so I stopped again and did all I could for the dogs, collected wood for a fire and crawled into my sleeping bag to hunker down for a while," Sass said. "As I drifted in and out, I woke at one point to realize I had my arm and bare hand outside the sleeping bag and just laying on the frozen ground. I knew then that I could seriously harm myself and my dogs if I didn't get help."
Sass said he held a rescue beacon for an hour without pressing the alert button, questioning whether he should quit the race. It would not be safe to continue, he finally decided. He pressed the button, and Canadian rangers were soon there. Once they got to Braeburn, Sass was airlifted to Whitehorse, and a ranger stayed behind with his team of 13 dogs.
With the help of Quest competitor Hugh Neff, race official Scott Smith drove Sass' team into Braeburn.
"I can't thank those guys enough for what they did. It feels good to have a couple friends like them taking care of the team," Sass said on Facebook.
"Back here at the hotel in Whitehorse, Brent's body is sore, but his attitude is as good as you'd expect," wrote Horst, to whom Sass dictated his story. "It's hard for him to fight the feeling that he let the team down, but as he said to me, 'At that point there were 14 of us in the team. If one of them can't go on, they ride in the sled, but when I can't, they don't get to load me up and carry me to the checkpoint. Someone has to drive the team.'"
This is a pretty clear example of the team bond that is created between the musher and the dogs.
My stupid move of the day...
I was helping feed the dogs, and put a metal clip in my mouth so I didn’t lose it. It immediately froze stuck to my tongue and lips! Yeouch!!!!!!
Minus 47 Degrees!!
Sadly I have to head back to New Zealand before Curt has finished. (I have pre-booked work at the Coast to Coast race.) I got up at 6 am and walked to the outskirts of Dawson city to thumb a ride. I’d secretly hoped to be able to see the Northern lights, but they weren’t to show tonight.
Very quickly my body heat was whisked away and I felt extremely vulnerable! Fortunately the first vehicle that passed picked me up.
He was the bloke that makes the icebridge across the Yukon river, and nonchalantly pointed out that it was at that time great conditions for ice making at minus 47 Degrees Celsius!!!!
We had driven across the icebridge several times each day to get to the musher’s camp. It was decidedly scary driving a vehicle over the ice-bridge, knowing there was a very deep, large and cold river running underneath. The very obvious cracks running through the ice didn’t help either!
The ice-bridge man was only going a couple of miles, and once again I was outside, vulnerable in the pitch-black chill, only this time there were no buildings for shelter!
As the chill ate through my Canada Goose jacket and three layers of fleece, I realised I was in serious risk if I didn’t do something about it quickly. I had three options:
Get picked up by another car (but there were none)
Put on more layers under my jackets.
I went for #3, but had serious problems. First my fingers froze immediately when I took my gloves off. Second I lost a massive amount of heat stripping off my Canada Goose jacket to put on more layers. I was unsure if I’d ever recover from this as hypothermia was hovering! I had to start jogging and jumping to warm up. I headed further down the road hoping to find a building to shelter.
Fortunately another car finally came and I sucked up the warmth inside as we headed off to Whitehorse.
But what it dramatically highlighted to me was the intense seriousness of dog-sledding in these conditions! One simple mistake can mean a hypothermic death.
Curt and his dogs had fallen through the ice into a stream a few days ago in the race. He must have wondered whether he’d be able to beat hypothermia. His only option was to immediately stop, and build a fire to thaw and dry out.
In a blizzard or storm, death must hover dangerously close at these temperatures!
Feb 11th - Curt has to run the gauntlet - Jackie Clarke
Curt has stopped in Carmacks for a six hour rest break. The dogs are looking good but it hit -50° Celsius.
The break is precautionary, as the dog need to be in good shape for the upcoming leg, a section where two competitors have come to grief… I’m guessing it’s a bit dangerous! So we are staying in Carmacks for tonight, then we'll head to Whitehorse tomorrow.
With Cody Strathe and Dave Dalton scratched, there are only eleven competitors left in the race.
Hopefully Curt can finish!! In these conditions that would be an achievement!!!
Feb 12th – Two more injuries - withdrawals…
Surfing the internet in the Air New Zealand lounge at LAX I read with horror that two more mushers have activated the help buttons on their SPOT beacons: Cody Strathe and Dave Dalton.
Whilst these injuries are terrible news, I must take a look at the flip side of the coin. It shows just how tough these races are and how a simple mistake can have very serious consequences in these below freezing conditions!
It’s this element of risk and danger that makes extreme sport attractive. The challenge is like an invitation to the hardy and adventurous. It’s an invitation to develop a high skill level and an intelligence that can judge and manage danger in the moment.
End of the Yukon Quest
It's over! Our adventure in the land of snow, ice and dogs has come to an end.
Curt not only succeeded in his goal of getting his dogs geared up for the Iditarod - he even finished in the top 10. Seventh place is absolutely amazing when you're out for a training run! We had a great time and learnt a lot about life in Alaska, the life of dog mushers & their teams and discovered just how cold it gets up there! If you ever have the chance to be involved with dog sledding I highly recommend it - it's an facinating culture and working so closely with animals is not something I've done before.
We wish Curt, Fleur and the team the very best for the upcoming Iditarod starting on the 1st of March, we'll be watching how the race unfolds with great interest. There's a live GPS tracker on the Iditarod website to follow the action live.