‘One dog with two heads:’ Yukon Quest as Alaska knows it in jeopardy following Alaska, Canada boards’ rules dispute

‘One dog with two heads:’ Yukon Quest as Alaska knows it in jeopardy following Alaska, Canada boards’ rules dispute
Published: May. 3, 2022 at 9:52 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Since 1984, separate governing bodies in Alaska and Canada have hosted the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse.

However, the Alaska board of directors for the race (Yukon Quest International Ltd.) announced on Monday that it will no longer work with the Yukon board (Yukon Quest International Association) on staging an international race between the two sides.

The “split,” as described by Yukon Quest International Association musher’s representative Frank Turner, largely stems from disagreement about proposed rule changes to the 2023 race that include longer mandatory rests along the trail and more comprehensive veterinary care.

“We think that there’s ways of improving the race so that we’re walking the talk (for dog care) and the Alaskans did not support that,” said Turner, a 1995 Yukon Quest Champion. “Their position was unilateral that they wanted to keep things as they were, use the same rules as 2020 and not make any comprises. ... I want to be objective here, so I’m not casting blame, I’m not being critical. We then had to make a decision — okay, there’s no give and take, and we are not going to go back from our commitment to implementing dog care, and then from that, it kind of — things went south.”

Turner added that the Alaska board’s decision to no longer work with them came as a surprise, and that their announcement was not sent to the Yukon Quest International Association directly, but was brought to their attention by a media outlet.

The Alaska board claims the Canada side proposed a 120-hour mandatory rest along the trail that follows along the Yukon River and features the mighty Eagle and Rosebud Summits, each over 3,000 feet in elevation, rather than the current 52 hours of mandatory rest.

“The Alaska Board believes the proposed rule changes would have irreparably altered the fundamental principles on which the Yukon Quest was founded, specially, that it was to be a long-distance wilderness race that would challenge the bush skills of traditionally Arctic mushers, and promote the training and care of their dogs,” the Yukon Quest International Ltd. statement said. “The Alaska Board concluded that the proposed changes would fundamentally alter that mission. Accordingly, Alaska (YQIL) and the Yukon (YQIA) will no longer work together to stage an international race.”

All rule changes to Yukon Quest races, including the shorter, mid-distance races held by each side, must be approved by the rules committee.

“The fact that they just wanted to make changes on their own without following the historical procedures of the corporations and the bylaws and procedures that you have to follow,” said Mark Weber, vice president of the board on the Alaska side.

Weber said that when the Alaska board rejected the proposal during an executive board meeting, the Canada board stated “then we will move to dissolve the corporation.” In a press release on Tuesday, the Yukon board said it “categorically disagrees” with the Alaska board’s assessment of the situation.

“In a Joint Board Executive Committee meeting on April 29, the Yukon Board agreed to hold the 2023 1,000-mile race utilizing the 2020 rules as the Alaskans demanded, with the request that additional data be collected with respect to run/rest intervals and tracker reliability, a tally of veterinary equipment used during the race, and also consideration given to adding an additional mandatory vet check,” the release states.

The last 1,000-mile international Yukon Quest was held in 2020, while each board has hosted mid-distance races in an effort to keep the race legacy alive until a full race could be held again, which was planned for February 2023.

Turner outlined another rule that the Canada board was interested in implementing, aimed at improving health and safety of sled dogs.

“What’s the most serious thing that can happen in a race? Dog death,” Turner said. “... We wanted a rule that said, if a dog dies in the race, then that team will be withdrawn and pending the necropsy, the postmortem, if it’s deemed by a veterinarian panel that that dog’s death was preventable, then it’s a lifetime suspension. No ‘get out of jail (free’ card). We wanted that.”

Both sides shared disappointment in how the dispute was handled. The Yukon board said in the press release that the Alaska board’s decision to sever ties comes midway through an ongoing negotiation process.

“We’re so saddened and heartbroken by this, it’s unbelievable,” Weber said. “... Would we support a change? We’ve been told by existing board members, and specifically the existing president, they’re not going to support what we believe, which is follow the rules and regulations of the race.”

“Personally, these guys are my friends,” Turner added. “I’ve raced against them, I’ve worked with them. It’s just extremely disappointing the way this has turned out because ... I think it could have been dealt with much better in good faith, and not an erosion in trust. Either they don’t trust us, or we don’t trust them. Either way you want to cut it, loss of trust is a big problem.”

The Yukon board confirmed that they will be hosting 100-mile, 200-mile and 450-mile races, while Alaska hinted at a 1,000-mile race taking place from Eagle to Fairbanks in addition to their annual mid-distance races that serve as qualifiers for both the full Quest and the Iditarod.

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