Some say it’s the toughest race on the planet. One human. Fourteen dogs. One thousand miles endured at a knuckle-whitening -30°C.
For 52-year-old Megan Routley, it’s the road to bliss. Known as the world’s most extreme sled dog race, the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest is the roguish, free-spirited younger bro’ to the more famous 975-mile Iditarod. At its most brutal, temperatures can bottom out at -60°C. Where the mushers on the Iditarod navigate one major mountain range, those on the Quest cross four summits that each stab the sky for at least 1,000 metres.
The Quest ups the ante in other ways, too. The Iditarod has more than 20 checkpoints; the Quest has only nine (excluding the start and finish). Where Iditarod mushers can use more than one sled, Yukon Quest contestants must finish with what they started.
Of the several dozen mushers who will run the Yukon Quest this February, there will likely be only a handful of women, ranging from 30 to 55 years of age. Routley, a former Outward Bound instructor and current owner of Kingmik Dogsled Tours, which operates near Lake Louise, Alta., will be among them in 2014. She already knows the harsh odds. One-third of all racers likely won’t finish.
“It’s not going to be easy,” says Routley, while feeding chunks of frozen meat to the lunatic chorus of Amos, Shaman and Dee—Alaskan huskies who are vibrating on the gang line. “But that’s exactly the appeal. I have a girlfriend who is going on a pretty rigorous yoga retreat, hoping to have an epiphany. For me, I would way rather be with my dogs crossing a frozen wilderness, but I know it’s all the same thing.
“Sweat lodges are the same, as are Sun ceremonies. Journeys like these are all about realizing your potential and testing your limits. I am going to come out the other side feeling like a warrior. These are ‘God moments’ for me.”
While some of the veteran mushers aim to finish the Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks, Alaska trail in 10 days, Routley is hoping for 13. That’s 13 lonely days with one- to two-hour snatches of sleep (hence the visions, common amongst mushers) spent on the trail next to her dogs. There will be one possible shower at Dawson City, where all teams are forced to stop for 36 hours. And then the occasional hot meal after they’ve fed, massaged, clothed and tucked their dogs into straw beds.
Until next year’s Quest, you will find Routley and her 50 dogs running tourists around forested loops near Lake Louise, or racing in two 300-mile events, this winter (one in Saskatchewan in February, another in Dawson City in March). Experience suggests she’ll spend most of her time fretting over her dogs like a first-time mom.
“You’re often using a headlamp that can cast wild shadows on your team in front of you,” she says, explaining the visions that can happen on a typical six-hours-on, six-hours-off shift.
Facing such a gruelling race, with no guarantee of victory or winning the purse, what drives folks like Routley to clean out their bank accounts and risk all?
“I love feeling small,” she says, grinning. “It’s a reverence for the planet and the universe. Such challenges leave me very humbled. That said, you might see me sitting on a park bench some day, in a ratty coat, with a sign that says, ‘I followed my bliss too far.’”