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Icy conditions force last-minute trail change for Yukon Quest

Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, the original start line of the Yukon Quest which begins on Saturday. On Monday, temperatures in the city reached an unseasonable 4.7 C. The return of colder temperatures since then has made for icy conditions.    (Katie Todd/CBC - image credit)
Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, the original start line of the Yukon Quest which begins on Saturday. On Monday, temperatures in the city reached an unseasonable 4.7 C. The return of colder temperatures since then has made for icy conditions. (Katie Todd/CBC - image credit)

Days before the Yukon Quest sled dog race kicks off, organizers are scrambling to deal with a curveball from Mother Nature.

An unusual spell of above-zero temperatures this week has plastered the first section of the trail with ice.

Yukon Quest executive director Benjamin Smith said the slick conditions at the typical start line, in Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, have been deemed too hazardous.

Plan B is a new start line. The annual race will now kick off 25 kilometres north, at Suncatchers Inn Cattery on Takhini River Road, at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

"This was not a decision that we reached lightly. A lot of consideration, a lot of effort got put into to making this work and in the end it just won't work," Smith said.

As part of the new plan, Smith said dog teams will be required to "power down" for the first section of the race.

"Mushers will start the race with reduced numbers of dogs, and add dogs later in the race. That will give them the ability to navigate trickier parts of the trail outside the city more easily," he said.

Yukon Quest executive director Benjamin Smith says changing the trail last-minute isn't an easy task. "The amount of work that goes into this race is extraordinary and unfortunately we... have to basically redesign the start again."
Yukon Quest executive director Benjamin Smith says changing the trail last-minute isn't an easy task. "The amount of work that goes into this race is extraordinary and unfortunately we... have to basically redesign the start again."

Yukon Quest executive director Benjamin Smith says changing the trail at the last minute isn't an easy task. 'The amount of work that goes into this race is extraordinary and unfortunately we... have to basically redesign the start again.' (Maria Tobin/CBC)

Smith said mushers had told organisers they were worried about the icy conditions.

"Given the ice, given the lack of snow, it would be hard to get snow hooks in, it would be hard to get dogs under control. If they were to change direction, there was potential of having difficulty navigating declines," Smith said.

The event will still have three races, and the finish lines are unchanged.

Mushers will compete in either the 100-mile (160 kilometre) race to Braeburn, 250-mile (402 kilometre) race to Pelly Crossing or 450-mile (724 kilometre) race to Dawson City.

Smith said outside the Whitehorse area, the weather conditions had been more "cooperative."

"We could use some more snow obviously. That being said, we're definitely monitoring conditions from here to Braeburn and farther up. We are checking with our judges and our marshals and making sure that everything is safe," he said.

"There are some spots in there that we are keeping an eye on. Overall, the trail is looking good."

The Yukon Quest start line in Shipyards Park, pictured in 2022. This year the race will kick off from Suncatchers Inn Cattery on Takhini River Road.
The Yukon Quest start line in Shipyards Park, pictured in 2022. This year the race will kick off from Suncatchers Inn Cattery on Takhini River Road.

The Yukon Quest start line in Shipyards Park, pictured in 2022. This year the race will kick off from Suncatchers Inn Cattery on Takhini River Road. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

Smith said the last-minute change had been "very difficult."

"The amount of work that goes into this race is extraordinary and unfortunately we... have to basically redesign the start again," he said.

"There's definitely going to be a lot of changes, a lot of phone calls, a lot of logistics that we're going to have to shift around, but we'll do what we have to do to make it work."

Icy conditions result of dramatic weather change

Temperatures in Whitehorse spiked to an unusual 4.7 C on Monday.

A climatologist told CBC News this week that an "atmospheric river flow" from southern B.C. and the Pacific was to blame. David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, said the sudden shift in temperatures last weekend in parts of the Yukon was "one of the strangest bouts of weather" he's seen in his decades-long career.

The town of Watson Lake recorded almost 10 C on Monday, while Mayo hit 9.4 degrees.

By Wednesday, most of the territory was back below zero, and some communities were in the –20 C to –30 C range on Thursday.

In Whitehorse, the rain, snow-melt and slush from earlier this week has frozen rock hard — prompting local authorities to put out warnings for walkers and drivers.

Veteran musher apprehensive about technical sections 

Michelle Phillips is one of 18 mushers taking part in this years' Yukon Quest.

The veteran musher from the Yukon has taken part in the event many times before — and won the 450-mile event last year.

Michelle Phillips, pictured at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, March 5, 2022. She says the Yukon Quest's changed start line hasn't completely quelled her nerves about the icy conditions.
Michelle Phillips, pictured at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, March 5, 2022. She says the Yukon Quest's changed start line hasn't completely quelled her nerves about the icy conditions.

Veteran Yukon musher Michelle Phillips, pictured here in the 2022 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, is one of 18 mushers taking part in this year's Yukon Quest. She said the race's changed start line hasn't completely quelled her nerves about the icy conditions. (Emily Mesner/Anchorage Daily News/AP)

She said the icy conditions this week had been front of mind over the last few days.

"You don't have the control over the dogs because they can pull very easily. There's not much friction. And if you're on glare ice, you can't set up your snow hook so you can't stop. You know, you can't stop them. And yeah, it just, it can be hard to stay upright. So yeah, all those things present a challenge," she said on Wednesday.

The changed start line hadn't completely quelled her nerves.

"The trail is pretty long and there's many sections, so it just means you're avoiding the part of the river that would have been a lot of overflow probably, and glare ice. But there's a lot of other sections up ahead that are pretty technical," she said.

"This morning my husband and I ran my team. We had an eight dog team and I had 100 pounds in my sled. I had two feet on my drag mat for two hours trying to keep them slow. So yeah, those trails are pretty fast out there."

However there was a lot to be excited about, she added.

"I always look forward to being back on the Quest trail. The people are great, the checkpoints are very welcoming and the trail itself is beautiful. I enjoy being on the trail with my dogs."