Kaktovik rookie gears up for Yukon Quest
It's a big week for Kaktovik musher Vebjorn Aishana Reitan. Over the next few days, he'll be putting the finishing touches on his preparations for the Yukon Quest.
"I'm apprehensive and kind of nervous. It's a really big race," said Reitan. "We spent several months getting ready for it. I feel like we're going to be OK. I think we've got all our bases covered."
With vet checks complete and his team's food drop bags en route to the checkpoints, the final countdown to race day is underway.
The Quest is one of the races comprising the informal trifecta of international dog sled competitions, alongside Alaska's Iditarod and Norway's Finnmarkslopet.
It's a 1,000-mile trail that crisscrosses northern Alaska and the Yukon, running from Fairbanks to Whitehorse in even years, like this one, and in reverse on the odds.
Reitan, who divides his time between the North Slope and the Hedmark region of Norway, has never competed in such an extensive race before, though he has experience with shorter routes.
He's run teams in a handful of races in Norway and competed in the Two Rivers 200 in 2016. Earlier this year, he came in seventh in the Copper Basin 300 and was named Rookie of the Year.
"This will be my first 1,000-mile race, so it's a little bit different, but I figure I've collected enough experience on the smaller ones, so that I won't have too much trouble on the 1,000-mile, other than having to stay in the race for a lot longer," he said.
As one of the longer races, the Quest demands teams be able to pace themselves and enter prepared for the unexpected.
"We're running for nine to 14 days, so everything has to work good the whole way through. Nothing can break if we have 40 below weather. Everything has to be solid or at least fixable," said Reitan. "With my gear, I have to make sure I have enough of it, but that I don't bring so much that I weigh the sled down and create more work for myself. It has to be enough, but not too much. It's kind of a balancing act of having stuff that's solid, but that's also lightweight. We have to test our gear and make sure it works if it's warm or if it's cold."
Weather and trail conditions can shift quickly over the course of a multi-week race, especially one that traverses such dynamic terrain as the Quest. Teams may encounter too much snow or not enough, deep drifts, overflow, ice and thaw.
As of Monday's trail report, conditions looked fairly favorable throughout the entire route. Volunteer trail-breakers in Alaska noted good snow conditions at the start with hard-packed snow between Central and Circle. They saw some open water on Birch Creek and a handful of rough ice crossings between Circle and Eagle.
Up on American Summit, one of the highest points of the race, volunteers encountered large snowdrifts.
On the Yukon side, Canadian Rangers noted the Yukon River from Forty Mile to Dawson was in good shape at the start of the week. However, there were some areas through the second half of the trail that could use additional snow.
The only portion of the trail that's changing this year due to poor conditions is the final section from Braeburn to Whitehorse. Rather than following the Trans-Canada Trail, mushers will retrace the trail from Braeburn to Coghlan Lake, then head south to Lake Laberge, which they'll follow to the Yukon River. From there, they'll take the river to the mouth of the Takhini and travel overland to Whitehorse.
While it's an unusual route for contemporary mushers, it's actually part of the original Yukon Quest trail.
"So, we're going a little bit different route than the race usually does, but it sounds like it will be a good race anyways," Reitan said.
He's looking forward to seeing snow on the summits, he said, as it should help him keep control of his team during the challenging downhills.
"We have snow over the mountaintops where there usually isn't snow, so steering and braking might not be as hard of a task as it usually is," he said. "Going down the big mountains in the beginning, going this way, if you have a really strong team, you might build up a lot of speed, but it sounds like there's snow there to be able to brake, so you don't start going too fast and break something."
His team is used to running over a wide range of terrain because of how they train, so he's confident his dogs will be able to handle the conditions they encounter.
"We train our dogs in Kaktovik and we get to do a lot of flat country training there on the coast. If you go up the Hulahula River and up into the Brooks Range, we have the whole spectrum of terrain there. We have flat country with no snow, flat country with snow, and hills with and without snow, so we get a good variety of challenging terrain for the dogs. We have the river with some overflow, so the lead dogs learn that it's OK to run through water if it looks OK and they get experience with what's OK and not on river ice," he explained. "I think the dogs have learned a lot about how to behave themselves in the country and how not to hurt themselves running in front of the sled."
His dogs are from his family's kennel. His father, Ketil Reitan, is an Iditarod veteran, and his younger brother Martin also races.
"The dogs have to be able to keep going and try and not get too worn out," said Reitan. "We put thousands of miles of training on them from the fall all the way through the winter. A lot of my dogs are really experienced, so they know how to pace themselves and they know we're not done at the end of the day, so they're not being too crazy about running really fast in the beginning and getting worn out. My dogs are really smart, so that helps me a lot."
At 21, Reitan is one of the youngest mushers — and the youngest rookie — participating in this year's Quest. Michigan musher and race veteran Laura Neese is the same age.
As of the start of the week, 26 mushers had signed up to participate. A little over a third are new to the race and the rest are veterans, including Kotzebue musher Katherine Keith. She first entered the Quest in 2017 when she came in seventh and was named Rookie of the Year. This year, half of her team are race vets.
As a newcomer, Reitan said he's feeling a bit nervous with the race so close, though he thinks his team is prepared.
"It's always the cold weather (that's a challenge)," he said. "There are sections of the Yukon Quest which run down creeks and rivers which would draw a lot of the cold weather. Up in the hills, you might have 10 degrees warmer weather and that really makes a big difference. If it's already cold when you get on the river, it gets really freezing."
Dogs can have trouble with frostbite unless their stomachs and sensitive areas are protected from the wind and elements, so Reitan said he's made sure he has sufficient gear in case they hit really chilling temperatures.
All in all, despite a few pre-race jitters, Reitan said he's ready to hit the trail. After all, that's where mushers really come alive.
"I always look forward to starting the race because after that, it's just running dogs, which I enjoy. I don't like too much planning and calculations and all this worrying. It's a lot better once we get out on the trail. That's where I have a little bit more control, I feel like."
The Yukon Quest kicks off Feb. 3 in Fairbanks. You can follow Reitan, Keith and the rest of the mushers and teams in real-time once the race begins at http://www.yukonquest.com.