An original trailbreaker
Jack Hendricks didn’t mince words about what it’s like to fall through ice on the Yukon River while trying to “break trail” for the mushers and sled dogs competing in the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race.
“It makes your butt bite your pants,” said Hendricks.
The 69-year-old was part of the Yukon Quest’s trailbreaking team for 30 years until he had a stroke several years ago. He and his wife Becky live in Central, a remote Alaskan community that doubles as a checkpoint during the Yukon Quest.
As part of the trailbreaking team, Hendricks used to partner with local volunteers to help establish a section of the 500-mile trail that leads from Fairbanks to the Canadian border before the race continues another 500 miles to Whitehorse. He spent many years focusing an 80-mile stretch along the Yukon River.
Hendricks and his friends searched for the safest routes with enough snow to buffer the mushers and their dog teams from the rough terrain below which can include gravel or jagged river ice. They helped clear brush and pack down trails up and over mountains. They also tested the Yukon River to see which areas have ice thick enough to support the mushers.
All the while, the volunteers braved bone-chilling winds, temperatures of -60ºF, and sometimes falling through what’s called “hollow ice.”
Hollow ice forms when a part of the river develops a few inches of thick surface ice. Then the river’s water level drops and a new layer of surface ice forms a few feet below the other one. Only air separates the two layers.
Most any volunteer who breaks trail along the Yukon River has had the heart-stopping experience of running their snow machine over hollow ice. It makes an unmistakable sound that signals the rider is in for a thrill ride.
But the rider doesn’t know if he or she will land on another layer of ice or into the Yukon River. The latter has never happened to Hendricks or his crew.
“No one’s ever fallen through the river. That’s one of the luckiest things,” said Hendricks. “I mean really and truly. That river eats people every year, but no one has ever fallen through.”
That’s because the trailbreaking team on the Alaska side are usually locals who live and subsist off the land. They also work with other locals to identify already safe and established winter routes like trapping lines that can become part of the Yukon Quest trail.
Although this sounds like a lot of work, Hendricks said local volunteers are more than willing to come back every year.
“It’s a party,” he said.
Hendrick’s wife of 46 years, Becky, elaborated. “The Yukon Quest is Central’s Mardi Gras,” she said.
She said the Yukon Quest is one of the biggest winter events for small, remote villages like Central, Circle, Eagle that are like far-strung beads on the thin thread of winter trail.
Even after the mushers come through, children and community members can use the Yukon Quest trail to chop firewood, hunt caribou, set traps, exercise their dogs or just get out and enjoy a safe path in remote wilderness.
She said her husband enjoyed it for many years and some of their seven children help break trail till this day. She said it’s tough work, but people keep coming back.
“I liken it to having a baby,” she said. “It’s kind of like going through labor and then that baby comes out and you think ‘I did it. I’m done. I’m never going to do it again,’” she said. “Then, by George, you’re doing it again.”
Hendricks became involved with trail breaking during the first Yukon Quest race in 1984 when his buddy, Don Glassburn, asked him to help establish a winter trail up the 3,640-foot mountain called Rosebud Summit. Glassburn wanted to compete in the inaugural race. Being a good friend, Hendricks took his “brute of a snow machine” and dragged Glassburn up the mountain in a sled to pack down a trail.
Hendricks also had ambitions of mushing the Yukon Quest until he tried taking a sled dog team out on a long mushing trip and stepped off the sled during a break.
“The dogs, of course, left me,” he said. It was a long walk home.
So, Hendricks settled for helping establish winter routes and connecting existing ones on the Alaskan side of the Yukon River each year about a month before the Yukon Quest.
He and his friends would stay at cabins along the route, stoke warm fires and welcome old friends from the bush.
Although Hendricks no longer volunteers, he does have a front-row seat to the Yukon Quest – it crosses his driveway.
He also gets updates from his friend, Mike Reitz, who currently heads a team of 30 to 40 volunteers each year who help establish the 500 miles of Yukon Quest trail in Alaska.
The commercial fisherman, who has a winter cabin by Eagle, said it’s friends like Hendricks that keep him coming back each year.
“The race is so much bigger than just the mushers…,” he said. “There’s so many characters and people who have worked on it over the years – so many different people from so many different walks of life."
So many ways to describe ice and snow
There’s only one constant when developing trails for the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race.
“With a trail, any trail, the only thing constant is change, and change is minute to minute, hour to hour and day to day,” said Canadian Ranger John “Mitch” Mitchell. “A trail is never static. Trees come down. Overflow comes up. You can’t ever take a trail for granted even if the Rangers have been through there.”
Mitchell is a Canadian Ranger from Dawson, Canada who coordinates a group of about 50 rangers in establishing 500 miles of winter trail in Canada for the sled dog teams in the Yukon Quest.
All the Rangers are from patrols that are based in and service the local communities along the trail – Whitehorse, Carmacks, Pelly Crossing, and Dawson City. They build the trail as part of military exercise which dates back to the early 1990s. Mitchell, however, has helped the Yukon Quest break trail since 1985.
The Rangers establish, finesse and maintain the trails. They even travel ahead of the leading musher to assess and help with trail conditions.
But Mitchell said all their trail maintenance can’t prepare a musher and her or his sled dog team for all the conditions that may arise.
Because of this, mushers must be aware of the potential hazards and have a working knowledge of snow and ice conditions that can challenge both the mushers and the sled dogs.
Mitchell shared some of these conditions below.
The Canadian Rangers had to smooth a trail through about 5 miles of jumble ice this year. Jumble ice forms from slabs of ice that have jammed into and upended each other. They can dam a river.
Mitchell explained that when rivers start to freeze in the fall, ice first forms at the shore and then extends out into the river. As water levels go up and down, some shore ice breaks off and floats down river. These flat sheets of ice can pile up and create a jumble of ice and sharp jagged edges.
“The worst jumble ice is formed when the river jams, backs up for a period of time and then flushes to create a new jam picking up more ice on the way,” said Mitchell.
For the Yukon Quest, the Rangers level a trail through the jumble ice by chopping the jagged edges with axes and chainsaws. New or existing snow is then needed to fill in the holes still left in the jumble ice to create a stable trail. “What makes it passable at the best of times is the snow you get,” he said.
Clumps of slush form on the Yukon River to form crumble ice. The clumps can accumulate into large cakes. “It can be dangerous to travel on crumble ice when fresh but it can also become an advantage when it freezes over,” said Mitchell. He said a snow machine can easily compress the ice and level it to make a nice trail.
Mitchell said Rangers look or “listen” for hollow ice so that they can build trails avoiding it. “You’ll hear a hollow drumming sound when you run your snow machine or walk over hollow ice.”
Last year, however, two Canadian Rangers found hollow ice by falling through it. Mitchell said that they fell through a layer of ice that formed on top of a waterway near the shore. The water level had dropped underneath the ice. The lowered water level formed a new layer of surface ice. Only a few feet of air separated the two layers until the Rangers’ snow machines crashed through the first one.
Glare ice is smooth, glassy ice. If it’s level, like on a lake, mushers can pass right over it. “If it’s on a slope, it can become dangerous to the mushers because they have minimal control of their sled,” said Mitchell.
“The one to really watch for is overflow,” said Mitchell. “That’s water coming up on top of the ice and that’s something we really try to stay away from.” Overflow happens when flowing water is forced up and over a surface layer of ice. It’s dangerous for dog teams to pass through overflow because the dogs’ paws can become wet in an area where it’s nearly impossible to dry them. “Overflow varies considerably in depth; it can be inches deep or feet deep,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell said that snow covering overflow keeps the overflow in liquid form because snow is such a good insulator. To counter this, Mitchell and his team will use a snow machine to drive over the snow in order to expose the liquid overflow to air. The liquid freezes and can form an ice bridge that mushers can pass over. The only disadvantage is that mushers must stay on the ice bridge and be very careful not to stray off it or else they and their dog teams will end up in water.
A slushy form of ice can grow on the bottom of a river or the bottom of the surface ice. This slush, or anchor ice, can form an obstacle to the flow of water in the winter, pushing water up and possibly over a frozen surface layer of ice, resulting in overflow.
A “glacier” on the trail isn’t always a large massive body of snow and ice that moves slowly downhill under its own weight. Rather a “glacier” on the Yukon Quest trail can refer to an ice bridge that has become dangerously lopsided.
Mitchell explained that there are many things in nature that can help form ice bridges that cross creeks or some sections of river. Humans can also make ice bridges if they can locate water under snow and then expose the water to air, thereby freezing it.
If there’s still snow on either side of the ice bridge, then chances are that there’s water under that snow since snow is such a good insulator. And if that water is flowing, then the flow is hitting one side of the berm will continue to grow that side of the berm up.
“It’s like flooding an ice rink,” said Mitchell. “A little water hits the berm, is exposed to air and rapidly freezes. It builds up quickly in layers.”
If Mitchell and his team find these “glaciers” en route or accidentally form them when establishing the trail, they will level the “glaciers” by adding brush and snow to the lower side of the ice bridge. They may even expose some water to air to freeze and strengthen it.
Mitchell added a cool fun fact for those that find themselves in need of water while on the trail. Find an ice bridge and see where the ice meets the snow. Look under snow and you’ll find water.